Carolly Erickson, . . Wiley, $24.95 (234pp) ISBN 978-0-471-27140-6

Veteran biographer Erickson (Great Harry, etc.) focuses on Mary Broad, who was arrested for robbery in 1786 and transported in sordid conditions to the new penal colony in Australia. But the book is, more generally, a stark and fascinating account of what prisoners endured: in England, where harsh laws protected property in an era of unsettling social change; on board ship; and in the penal colonies themselves, where the convicts and their guards carved a bleak existence out of the inhospitable environment. Life was particularly harsh for women, who, in addition to the usual deprivations, also endured the threat of rape and the responsibilities and sorrows of raising children in dire conditions. Mary Broad, along with several male convicts and her own young children, made a daring escape in a small, stolen boat. Perhaps fortified by stories of the survivors of the Bounty , they sailed along the Australian coast and across open sea to the Dutch settlement of Kupang in Indonesia, where they enjoyed a few months of ease before their recapture. Despite Erickson's speculations, little can be known concretely about Mary as an individual. Her story draws in the reader, nonetheless, and Mary's brief moment of celebrity, when the escape and the well-timed intervention of the writer James Boswell earn her a royal pardon, provides a satisfying end to the unrelenting hardship of her life. Agent, Russell Galen. (Nov.)