History

  • Books and reading,  History

    Another view of history: ‘Tongerlongeter’ by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements

    I adore Tasmania, the island state off the southern tip of mainland Australia. One of my special places there is the Freycinet Peninsula and Oyster Bay region, on the east coast. Rimmed by the imposing hills called the Hazards, with pristine bushland and clear turquoise seas, it’s a beautiful part of the country.

    How I wish I had known more of the history of this area when I visited.

    This peaceful corner of Tasmania was home to the Oyster Bay people, who along with the rest of Tasmania’s First Nations, suffered greatly during the colonisation process in the early 1800’s. As white settlers moved further into the countryside with their animals, putting up fences, turning productive hunting and gathering territory into grazing land, the line of farms moving northwards from Hobart began to meet those coming south from Launceston. Kidnappings and sickening abuses of their women and girls by sealers and whalers fractured the economic and social foundations on which daily life had been based. All this resulted in a hairline crack in Tongerlongeter’s world that would soon become a critical rupture. p69

    …as long as there remained some hope of avoiding all-out war, Tongerlongeter and his allies appear to have grudgingly tolerated the strangers’ presence provided they did them no violence. By the middle of the decade, though, enough colonists were actively seeking to harm them that bands like the Poredarame were regularly taking retributive action.

    Tongerlongeter p87

    Tongerlongeter was a leader of the Oyster Bay people who, together with those from further west known as the Big River mob, met this threat head on, with armed and violent resistance. During the 1820’s and early 1830’s the Oyster Bay and Big River war parties launched at least 711 attacks on white farms and property, killing or wounding hundred and damaging or burning huts or homes. Much of this took place close to Hobart and surrounding districts.

    Of course, retribution was swift and brutal. The imposition of British law at the start of the colony meant that any resistance was seen as criminal behaviour or rebellion, not warfare against an invading enemy. The infamous ‘Black Line’ in 1830 saw over 2000 settlers, soldiers and convicts walking across country, trying to capture or kill First Nations people. Not just warriors but old people, women and children were caught up in acts of retribution and killed, injured or captured.

    It is a story of terrible brutality with atrocities committed on both sides. I had known something of the so-called ‘Black Wars’ of the colonial period, and the ‘Black Line’. Tongerlongeter fills out the narrative, painting a picture of the main protagonists, both white and Black.

    The sad ending to this particular chapter came with the exile of Tongerlongeter with his band and others, to a settlement on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. In an all-too-familiar story, illness and death cut a swathe through a people already grieving for their country and their loved ones.

    In this book, Reynolds and Clements argue that the actions of Tongerlongeter and his people should be seen as a military campaign of resistance against armed invaders. They were fighting for their country and their way of life. Not so different, really, from the Allies fighting against the Nazi invasion of much of Europe during the 1940’s. The Black Line was, according to the authors, the largest domestic military offensive on Australian soil. If we look at what happened from this angle, it is an easy step to regard Tongerlongeter and other leaders as war heroes.

    The book questions why Tongerlongeter and his compatriots are not remembered in the same way as other Australians since that time, who were killed or injured in war? Why have the wars of resistance in Tasmania and elsewhere never been included in Australia’s official list of armed conflicts?

    Another point they make is that the ‘Black Wars’ in Tasmania had far-reaching effects both locally and internationally. For example, the fear that the Tasmanian wars inspired amongst settlers and the British government brought about considerations of how to come to agreements with First Nations peoples before new colonies were established – with of course, mixed results. A powerful humanitarian lobby was growing which eventually led to the abolition of slavery.

    I was interested in the reported views of commentators in the 1830’s and 1840’s, some from far away Britain, which canvassed more nuanced, honest and critical views of Empire and its consequences, than are expressed by some people in Australia today.

    I would highly recommend Tongerlongeter as a book to get you thinking; a narrative which presents another view of Australian history.

    Tongerlongeter was published by NewSouth in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Wartime, pasta & Dean Martin: ‘The Proxy Bride’ by Zoë Boccabella

    Can you imagine boarding a ship to voyage across the world to live in an unfamiliar country, learn a new language AND join a man you had never met, as his wife? This was the life changing decision of thousands of young Italian women and their families in the period leading up to WWII, and is the basis of The Proxy Bride. The brides in question were married ‘by proxy’ in Italy (with a male family member standing in for the groom, who was far away in Australia) before leaving to begin their new lives.

    Why did they leave their homeland under such circumstances? According to the author, it was a combination of desperate poverty in Italy, Italian men already in Australia outnumbering potential brides of Italian birth, and a desire by families to give their daughters a chance for a better future.

    I was surprised to learn of this chapter of Australia’s migrant history. The Proxy Bride tells a compelling and sympathetic story of hope, loss, homesickness, culture and prejudice, putting the historical events into a relatable context.

    Gia is a courageous protagonist, travelling towards a future with Taddeo, a quiet man who has established himself in Queensland’s Stanthorpe region, growing apples and peaches and mixing mainly with other Italian migrants in the district. When Gia arrives, there is no spark of romance between the new couple. Some of her compatriots who had travelled with her on the voyage to Australia have more luck with their arranged marriages, others less so. It is essentially a ‘pot luck’ scenario, but mostly, the couples try to make the best of what fate has sent their way, working hard to establish themselves and earn a living.

    Unfortunately for Gia (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), there is an immediate and lasting spark between her and a neighbouring farmer, Keith, though they both know that nothing permanent can come of their connection.

    Then along comes the outbreak of war and Italian men (now considered ‘enemy aliens’) are taken to internment camps for an indefinite period, leaving behind bewildered women wondering how they can support themselves until their husbands return. The women need to learn new skills and manage the tasks previously done by their menfolk, to ensure a harvest that will allow them to live and feed themselves and their children.

    They do this by banding together, supporting each other while facing shame, ridicule, and bullying from many in the local community. We must not forget that this was during the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy and before the influx of European migrants brought about by the end of the war. Wartime suspicion of anyone seen as aligned with Germany, Italy or Japan ran deep.

    At the same time, newsreel footage portrays parts of Italy suffering under heavy bombardment by Allied forces, so the women live with the agony of not knowing if their families back home are safe.

    In between Gia’s story, the author has woven in the first-person narrative of her grand-daughter, Sofie, who has come to spend the summer holidays with Gia. Sofie is sixteen, that tender age during which young people test their boundaries, seek out their own identity, and (sometimes) begin to see their parents and grandparents with fresh eyes, as people in their own right, with lives and loves and experiences apart from those connected with their children.

    Sofie’s story is complicated by the fact that she has never known her father, and there seems to be secrecy around his identity. Even as Gia shares with Sofie the story of her early life in Australia, her ‘proxy bride’ status and the painful events during the war, there remains a reluctance to venture into Sofie’s own beginnings.

    The way in which Gia’s and Sofie’s stories connect is revealed towards the novel’s climax. It’s not an easy story to tell or hear, but it allows Sofie to move closer to her mother, grandmother, and Italian extended family and community.

    Gia plays her beloved Dean Martin albums on near constant rotation, so his voice is the backdrop to Sofie’s holiday time with her grandmother – as is cooking.

    Each of Sofie’s chapters is named after a particular dish her grandmother makes, always based on traditional Calabrian recipes. And Gia loves to use chilli, from a plant grown from seeds her own grandmother gave her when she left Italy so long ago. ‘Angry spaghetti’ is a favoured dish (spaghetti all’Arrabbiata Calabrese) and I was delighted to discover the recipe for this and quite a few other special dishes made by Gia in the novel, at the back of the book. It absolutely felt like a gift from Gia to me, the reader!

    Cooking is a theme throughout the novel and a beautiful metaphor to express the ways in which love, culture, connection and family can be passed on through favoured recipes, cooking and sharing food together.

    ‘Go on. Close your eyes. Breathe in.’
    The sharp tang hit my nostrils first, then a little bit of acridity, followed by sweetness and last of all a current of mellow earthy oil. I open my eyes to Nonna Gia beaming.
    ‘It’s the same scent your ancestors breathed when they cooked this dish.’
    And just then it was almost as if the aroma released a trigger of deep memories that let things rise up and take shape in ourselves.

    The Proxy Bride p369

    The Proxy Bride shines a light into a little-known or understood corner of the migrant story in Australia, told through complex characters no doubt informed by the author’s own family experiences as Italian migrants. I learnt a lot and enjoyed the read.

    The Proxy Bride is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Courage and sacrifice: ‘The Librarian Spy’ by Madeline Martin

    I recently heard a podcast interview with Sulari Gentill, best-selling Australian author, in which she reported a comment made to her that people who love books will pick up any book with the word ‘librarian’ in the title. While it made me chuckle, I have to admit that it’s probably quite correct. I was definitely attracted to this book about a librarian, and also the setting – World War II Europe – combine librarian and spy and it’s a winner!

    The novel actually features two women. There is Hélène, whose husband Joseph has been arrested for suspected Resistance activities and taken to the notorious Montluc prison in Lyon. An act of generosity by Hélène sees her forced to adopt a new identity as Elaine, as she throws herself into work for the Resistance, producing newspapers and leaflets banned by the Nazi occupiers of France.

    The librarian of the title is Ava, sent from her job in the Washington DC Library of Congress to Lisbon in Portugal, where she joins others from the US and Britain, gathering foreign language publications that might assist Allied intelligence efforts.

    These two women exist in very different worlds. The French are under the Nazi jackboot, facing peril and starvation every day. Portugal on the other hand is officially neutral, with plenty of food, wine and fine clothing for those with money, though there is an undercurrent of intrigue and danger, which Ava is at first unaware of.

    Portugal is also the last ‘safe’ place for refugees from German occupied Europe to escape to, and there await precious visas and travel tickets to Britain or the US. Ava witnesses the distress and difficulties faced by these people and she tries to help where she can.

    The descriptions of people in Lisbon during this time bring to mind the setting of the classic film Casablanca, which was similarly a refuge for people fleeing Nazi atrocities.

    Children chased one another about in a game of tag while their parents held cups of coffee and tea, engaged in their dismal low-toned conversations. The faces changed from time to time, but the situations were always the same. Adults waiting for the little ones to be distracted before whispering their fears to one another.
    What if a visa didn’t arrive in time and the PDVE {Portugal’s secret police} came for them? What if a boat ticket couldn’t be found and they had to start the process over again? What if the money ran out? What if Germany attacked Portugal and they had nowhere to go?

    The Librarian Spy p190

    In their attempts to rescue a Jewish mother and child from Lyon, Elaine and Ava connect, unseen across borders, and the events play out with plenty of suspense and heightened emotion.

    As always when reading historical fiction, I learned new things while reading The Librarian Spy, due to the wonderful detail included throughout. I didn’t know, for example, that Charles de Gaulle had declared the city of Lyon to be the ‘centre of the French Resistance’.

    And one regret is that when I visited Lyon a few years ago, I didn’t know about the ‘traboules’, secret passageways originally for silk workers in mediaeval times to aid their movements around the city, and used to great advantage by Resistance members to avoid detection by the Germans.

    The Librarian Spy was published in Australia in July 2022 by HQ Fiction.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Women in wartime: ‘The Light We Left Behind’ by Tessa Harris

    One of the most welcome aspects of the current trend in historical fiction publishing is the space created to tell the stories of women and the part they played in well-known – and sometimes, lesser-known – historical events. The Light We Left Behind is one such novel, focusing on the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the women and men who worked at Trent Park.

    Trent Park? Never heard of it?

    If that’s your reaction, rest assured it was also mine.

    Like the more famous Bletchley Park, Trent Park was a centre of intelligence gathering during WWII that was like no other in Britain at the time. A stately home outside London, it was turned into a prison for German POWs. A prison with a difference: Trent Park housed high ranking German officials and military officers in luxury, catering to their expensive tastes and providing entertainment and every comfort.

    You might be thinking ‘If the long-suffering British public had known of this place, there would have been an uproar’, and you would be quite correct. Trent Park’s real purpose was kept hidden even from the locals. The house and its grounds were fitted out with listening devices, and German speaking employees (sometimes refugees from Nazi-occupied territories) brought in to interpret what the German captives were saying to each other when they were alone – strolling the grounds, smoking cigars and drinking fine wine in the library.

    The prisoners were interrogated, of course, but the methods of interrogation tended to be gentle, employing psychological strategies rather than brute force. And the arrogant German generals and officials would boast amongst themselves about what they had not divulged to their interrogators, unknowingly providing information to the Allies about weapons development and war strategies that would otherwise have remained hidden.

    This fascinating centre of wartime activity provides the backdrop for the story of Maddie Gresham, a psychology student who had studied under the professor whose theories informed the establishment of Trent Park. Maddie is tasked with gaining the Germans’ trust and getting them to reveal more information.

    Maddie’s pre-war and wartime lives collide in the form of Max Weitzler, whom she had met and fallen in love with years before on a visit to Germany. What happens to Max’s German father and German Jewish mother shows how the Nazis’ racist policies so bitterly divided the country and tore families apart. Max’s appearance at Trent House brings with it both joy and potential disaster for Maddie.

    Maddie’s story illustrates how people’s emotional concerns and preoccupations can exist side-by-side with the pressing concerns of wartime work or survival: they are important parts of a character’s make-up and should not be ignored. For me, this results in a more satisfying and realistic picture because for all of us, while our lives may be transformed by external events such as war or disaster, our internal lives continue.

    The Light We Left Behind joins other novels (such as The Rose Code or The Codebreakers) which feature the valuable work done by women in complex wartime circumstances. It’s an engrossing, heartfelt portrayal of the difficulties faced by ordinary people doing extraordinary work in incredibly challenging times.

    The Light We Left Behind is published by Harper Collins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘The Brightest Star’ by Emma Harcourt

    Recently I have noticed a heartening bounty of books being published that feature women striving and achieving in areas traditionally the preserve of men. It’s a timely redress of a centuries-long imbalance. The Brightest Star is a terrific example.

    Set in Renaissance Florence, it tells the story of Luna, a child born under a full moon and in the eyes of many, doubly cursed, as she was born with a crippled foot and her mother died shortly afterwards.

    Luna is raised by her father Vincenzio (a prosperous wool merchant with an appetite for learning, particularly in the burgeoning field of astronomy), her stepmother and two half-siblings. She has a happy childhood, despite her disability, as she has a quick, intelligent mind and a love for learning, which her father indulges – until Luna grows ‘too old’ for such interests, which are seen by most as inappropriate for a young women.

    To make matters worse, Florence has fallen under the spell of the fanatical preacher Friar Girolama Savonarola, who rails against all earthly pleasures and any view he regards as heresy. The powerful Medici family, who Luna’s father secretly supports, have been banished from the city. These are dangerous times for anyone who questions accepted orthodoxies or who longs for a different life than that set out by church, family and society.

    The reader is plunged into the world of Renaissance Florence: the petty concerns of society are contrasted with ground-breaking developments in science, mathematics, philosophy and the arts; the blossoming of intellectual thought collides with the fundamentalism of Savonarola. Luna’s interests and abilities lead her into conflict with the norms and expectations of her society, just as her father’s political views result in danger for the entire family.

    The hold of the Friar over the great and good of the city has echoes of modern so-called ‘leaders’ whose followers similarly suspend rational or independent thought and swallow all they are told, no matter how improbable or dangerous the lies become:

    It was very clever the way the preacher stood in the halo of luminosity, just as he spoke of the divine light the Lord had sent to him. All around, people murmured in agreement with his words and Vincenzio was astounded. Was he the only sane man to hear the brittleness in the hollow-cheeked voice? How could Savonarola speak of a new era of universal peace whilst ransacking the homes of good citizens and banishing others? Discord was growing and word had travelled that Florence was becoming unstable, yet the people believed the preacher’s promise of riches, glory and power.

    The Brightest Star p138-139

    Sound familiar?

    Reading this book, I had a sense of the ebb and flow of human knowledge; the theories of the ancient Greeks more advanced than some of the ideas of mediaeval Europe; some of the ingrained assumptions about women almost as familiar today as they were over six hundred years ago. Characters from history appear in the novel’s pages, inviting recognition: Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli and Copernicus, to name a few.

    The Brightest Star is a welcome addition to the growing number of historical novels in which women’s aspirations and abilities are centre-stage, in settings where such things could be dangerous.

    The Brightest Star is published by HarperCollins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Secrets: ‘The Silence of Water’ by Sharron Booth

    Are some secrets best left buried in the past? Should we know everything about our forebears’ lives: including things they would much prefer remained hidden? Do the actions of the past affect descendants, even generations later?

    These are some of the questions explored in Sharron Booth’s debut novel, a work of historical fiction that builds on her extensive research. Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a sucker for fiction inspired by real-life people and events: it is what I most love to read (and write).

    The Silence of Water joins other books of this type that I have admired, including Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s a complicated book, told from the experiences and points of view of three characters across three generations of people.

    Fan is unhappy at her parents’ decision to move from Adelaide to Western Australia to take care of Fan’s elderly grandfather, Edwin Salt, a man she has never met and knows nothing about. She develops an unexpected relationship with the old man and becomes curious about his past, as veiled references and clues emerge. When she goes digging for further information about Edwin, she stumbles across long-buried secrets that upset her view of the world and her family.

    The narrative moves from South Australia in 1906, backwards in time to Lichfield in England where Edwin lived with his family in the 1840’s; in between are the experiences of Agnes, Edwin’s daughter and Fan’s mother in Perth.

    These settings and times are the warp of the book; the stories of Edwin, Agnes and Fan are the weft, slowly revealing the true picture of the family and its origins as the novel progresses. Fan’s curiosity about her family’s past and its people is beautifully portrayed:

    ”You’ve got such a lost look about you, poor little bird.’ Ernest rested his hand over hers. ‘Now you know where you fit…. At grandfather Samuel’s funeral, my mother told me that Saint Mary’s was full to the gunnels. Brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, rows and rows of cousins just like you and me, and all those screaming brats that our grandfather’s second wife kept popping out every year like Christmas puddings.’ Ernest drew an enormous circle around the entire family. ‘The point is, all those people in the church that day were your people, Agnes. Every single one.’
    Agnes stared at Ernest’s drawing. So many names, she could hardly take it in.

    The Silence of Water pp79-80

    The rich historical detail gives us an insight into how Western Australia must have appeared to the earliest British settlers and convicts; and also an indication of how late the convict transportation system continued into the western colony (until 1868), having ceased in the eastern colonies by the 1850’s.

    The Silence of Water was shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript. It tells a complex web of stories from one family and provokes questions about whether family secrets are best told or kept hidden. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend to readers who enjoy stories about Australia’s past.

    The Silence of Water is published by Fremantle Press in May 2022.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Billie Walker Book #2: ‘The Ghosts of Paris’ by Tara Moss

    I very much enjoyed Tara Moss’ first historical crime novel Dead Man Switch, now published as The War Widow. In book two, it’s 1947 and Sydney-based private inquiry agent Billie Walker sets off for London and Paris, to investigate the disappearance of a client’s husband.

    The Billie Walker novels flip the script of familiar 1940’s noir stories. For a start, Billie is a refreshingly forthright, courageous and skillful investigator who navigates her way adroitly through the sexism inherent in the era. She is also a woman of decidedly modern and progressive views, and readers become aware of the troubling laws and practices of the time, around race, the role of women, divorce and homosexuality.

    In Europe, Billie is confronted with stark reminders of the effects of the devastating war that ended just two years earlier. She is also reminded of her short but passionate relationship with Jack, whom she married while both were on assignment as journalists covering the war, and Jack’s mysterious disappearance. While searching for her client’s husband, Billie also searches for clues about her own.

    What began as a trip to solve her client’s mystery becomes a much more complex – and deadly – affair, during which Sam, her reliable and loyal assistant, proves his worth more than once.

    I especially enjoyed the vivid historical details in the settings of post-war Sydney, London and Paris, and the glimpses of each city’s wartime experience and (slow) recovery. It’s also sobering to realise that, unlike today, the world did not yet know the full extent of Nazi atrocities throughout Europe, and the novel shows us how this information was revealed, for example, during the Nazi war crimes trials.

    There are a few of Billie’s expressions that I found jarring, but overall I enjoyed the characters of Billie, Sam and Shyla in particular.

    I hope there’ll be a third Billie Walker story before too long.

    The Ghosts of Paris is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A gripping true tale: ‘Three Sheets to the Wind’ by Adam Courtenay

    Three Sheets to the Wind is a re-telling of the amazing true story of shipwrecked sailors who, in 1796, walked 600 miles through uncharted territory from the far southeast coast of Australia, almost to Sydney Town, before being rescued.

    Adam Courtenay has placed this event in the historical and social contexts of its time: a new (and struggling) colony on the edge of the known world, run by a succession of English governors who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to weaken the firm hold over its economy by the group of military officers known as the ‘Rum Corps.’

    Alternating chapters allow the reader to follow the voyage of the ship Sydney Cove from its origins in Calcutta, to its wreck just off Tasmania. Its cargo was purely commercial: goods to be sold at a profit to the settlers in New South Wales – and most prized of all was the alcohol loaded into the ship’s hold, especially the 7,000 gallons of rum. This liquor had become an unofficial currency in the colony, to the detriment of all aspects of daily life, and its trade was monopolised by the Rum Corps, despite official efforts to discourage and/or control its import and sale.

    You may have read Rum by Matt Murphy, published in 2021. If so, you will know the network of corruption and cronyism that the control and sale of this liquor encouraged and enabled.

    Into this heady environment, Campbell & Clark, the Scottish owners of the Sydney Cove sent their cargo, hoping for a tidy profit and to establish a trading presence in the colony. The monetary value of the alcohol helps to explain why the ship’s master, Hamilton, and the ‘supercargo’ (responsible for its safe delivery) William Clark, went to such lengths to preserve the cargo when the ship foundered.

    Courtenay gives us gripping account of the shipwrecks – plural, because after escaping the sinking ship in the longboat, the crew endured a second wreck while crossing Bass Strait, the often turbulent stretch of water that divides mainland Australia with the smaller island of Tasmania. (Keep in mind that at this point in time, Europeans did not know for sure if Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then called, was an island or if it was joined to the mainland. They were literally in uncharted waters, because even the renowned English explorer and cartographer James Cook had not thoroughly investigated this area on his earlier voyage.

    Seventeen survivors set out on the trek north to Sydney. They were a mix of European and Indian-born sailors, known as ‘lascars’. (The treatment of the lascars by the Europeans is a story in itself.) The journey was recorded by Clark in a pocket notebook he carried with him. Gradually the seventeen became seven, then reduced further until only three were finally rescued just south of Sydney.

    What is most notable about this story, I think, is the account by Clark of the group’s interactions with the First Nations people they encountered along the way. They passed through the country of at least six Indigenous clans and experienced both generous assistance and firm warnings from them. If it had not been for the local people, the travelers would have died from starvation or exposure many times. They were given food, shown shortcuts, and sometimes helped across rivers on canoes. On other occasions, though:

    Clark soon realised their actions were a warning to keep off certain tracts of land – they were not there to kill the foreigners but rather to protect their country. Clark and his men weren’t being guided through these lands: they were being forcibly marched through them.

    Three Sheets to the Wind p184

    There is much to both admire and deplore about this story. The party of sailors demonstrated enormous personal courage and strength to endure the trials they were subjected to. Clark’s account appears to hint at his changing view of the First Australians he met: from ‘barbarous hordes’ to generous and kind individuals. The observations by Clark and others of numerous seal colonies and plentiful seams of coal instigated the environmental disasters of the sealing, whaling and coal mining industries. And the voyage and subsequent trek north inspired more exploration, by George Bass and Mathew Flinders, among others – which both opened up more territory for the settlers and spelt the end of the sovereignty and sustainable lifestyles of First Australians.

    Three Sheets to the Wind is a detailed and thought provoking account of an amazing story from our history. And I love the clever title: three sheets to the wind being a nautical term that also alludes to drunkenness.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering little-known corners of war: ‘The Resistance Girl’ by Mandy Robotham

    Mandy Robotham’s books tell stories of women during or immediately after World War II, illustrating how their wartime experiences could both reflect, and differ from, those of their menfolk. I very much enjoy the way this author takes readers to corners of the war that might have otherwise remained hidden. In The Resistance Girl, we meet Rumi Orlstad, a Norwegian woman whose fiancé is drowned at sea during an action by the arm of the resistance movement known as the ‘Shetland Bus’.

    I’d heard of the Shetland Bus, where Norwegian fishing vessels were used to smuggle agents, supplies or fugitives across the North Sea between the Shetland Islands and Norway. After her fiancé’s death, Rumi’s loyalty to her beloved family and country means she must decide if she will withdraw from supporting the resistance and just see out the war in safety, or continue to fight the occupying Germans in the only ways she can.

    I liked many things about this novel. To begin, I loved that the Author’s Note appears first! As someone who habitually turns to the Author’s Note before I launch into a story, I appreciated knowing the historical background to the novel, especially as it concerns an area of WWII not featured in historical fiction that I’ve previously read. I knew little about Norway at this time and how its people dealt with Nazi occupation.

    Rumi is a strong, capable and engaging character, as is Jens, the British-Norwegian SOE agent she rescues from a botched airdrop at the novel’s opening. The other main characters quickly became people I cared about, too. There is just enough action, risk and drama to keep the story moving along at a satisfying pace.

    For me, as always, the pleasure of a novel comes from the way it deals with underlying themes, and The Resistance Girl does this well. It explores the grey areas between the choices that citizens of an occupied country must make: the fine line between doing what must be done to survive, and collaboration with the enemy. From our safe distance of time and place, it can be easy to offer condemnation of those who choose survival over heroism – but I’m not sure if any of us can truly know what choice we would make in a similar situation.

    I also enjoyed learning more about the war through the story; for example, the complexities and increasing dangers of resistance work, including correctly interpreting coded enemy messages and dealing with German reprisals.

    The other – shocking – thing I learned was that, along with the lands, homes and livelihoods taken from the Norwegian people, the Nazis also stole babies. They were on the lookout for blond haired, blue eyed babies born to Norwegian women and German fathers, in order to advance their ‘Lebensborn’ program to further the Reich’s aims of creating the ‘perfect race’. This sickening program was especially implemented in Norway, which had the largest number of maternity homes outside of Germany. Mothers were cared for until the birth of their babies, who were then forcibly taken from them and given to German families to raise. Australian readers will recognise this as another Stolen Generation based on race and physical appearance. Will humans ever learn?

    It soon becomes clear that the currency of new and impressionable humans to mould into Hitler’s perfect way of thinking represents something of great value; Lebensborn is an industry in the Reich’s grand plan: a ‘natural resource’ to be harvested, much like iron ore or fish oil. As they’ve suspected all along, Norwegians are a commodity.

    The Resistance Girl p224

    Readers who love fiction that brings to life historical events will enjoy The Resistance Girl. It is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • History

    A Kiwi perspective: ‘The Leonard Girls’ by Deborah Challinor

    The war in Vietnam divided opinion and (often) families, in those countries that sent troops and support personnel to oppose the communist Viet Cong in Vietnam during the 1960’s and early 70’s. The Leonard Girls is a well researched portrayal of the issues confronting New Zealanders during this turbulent time.

    There are three main characters in the story: Rowie and Jo (the Leonard girls of the title) and Sam. Rowie has just enlisted to serve as a military nurse in Vietnam. Jo, her younger university student sister, is vehemently outspoken in her opposition to the war. Sam is a professional soldier about to embark on his second tour of duty.

    By the time the novel closes, each of these three have undergone a change in their views about the war, due to first-hand experiences of the losses that inevitably accompany military conflict.

    There are fascinating details of the daily lives of the soldiers who fought, the nurses who tended the wounded and the concert parties who braved the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to entertain the troops. Inevitably there are confronting scenes of the impact of war, including on the Vietnamese people and on families left at home in New Zealand. A scene in a Vietnamese orphanage made an especially visceral impression on me.

    The other, quite shameful, aspect of this time that is portrayed well is the treatment of Australian and New Zealand soldiers, particularly on their return from Vietnam. The Author’s Note goes into this in a little more detail as well as giving a good overview of NZ involvement in the conflict, and what was going on at home.

    As in another book I recently reviewed, The Nurses’ War by Australian writer Victoria Purman, The Leonard Girls shows the important positive effects on injured Australian and New Zealand personnel of being tended to by nurses and doctors from ‘home’.

    If you have seen either the stage production or the hit Australian movie The Sapphires, you’ll have something of a picture of the work of entertainers in Vietnam during the conflict. However, I enjoyed the New Zealand focus of this novel, as so often the ‘NZ’ component of ‘ANZAC’ is downplayed or ignored altogether. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Maori culture and community throughout.

    While I found the pace a little slow at times, there was much to enjoy about – and learn from – this novel. Deborah Challinor’s books are always founded in deep research and knowledge of the period or context about which she writes, and this one is no different.

    The journeys of the three protagonists, and their loved ones, are profound and well portrayed. This is a novel to leave the reader thinking deeply about a period of relatively recent history about which opinions can still be sharply divided.

    The Leonard Girls is published by HarperCollins in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.