Timeslip: ‘Running with Ivan’ by Suzanne Leal
How do you explain to youngsters an event as unimaginable as the Holocaust in a way that elicits empathy and understanding rather than trauma?
Australian author Suzanne Leal has chosen a timeslip novel that allows readers to imagine themselves in the midst of such horror, while relating it to modern-day concerns of children and teens. In the author’s words:
The enormity of the Holocaust makes it almost impossible to comprehend. Mindful of this, I wanted to bring an immediacy to wartime Europe when writing Running with Ivan. That is why Leo – a boy from the twenty-first century with little understanding of the war and its impact – needed to find himself dropped right in the middle of it. Only then could he begin to understand what actually happened.Author’s Note, Running with Ivan p 308
Leo is thirteen, unhappy at having to share a bedroom in his new home with his detestable stepbrother Cooper. He still misses his mum who died two years ago. Now his dad has remarried: to a nice woman with horrible sons. There is nowhere Leo can go to get away from Cooper and his older brother Troy. Until he discovers a corner of the unused garage, and his mother’s old wind-up music box.
The music box proves to be a portal into the past, and Leo is transported to various times and places before, during and after World War II. He meets Ivan, who grows from a small child to a teenager as Leo appears and disappears. Ivan is Czech, and Jewish, and on each of Leo’s visits to his world, things are getting darker and more dangerous for Ivan and his family.
On a later visit, Leo finds himself in Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto used by the Nazis as a concentration camp, from where they transported trainloads of people to Auschwitz. He takes a terrible risk to save his friends, Ivan and Olinda, from being put on a transport.
The motif of running is used throughout the novel, as Leo discovers he has a talent for speed and finds that it soothes and distracts him from his problems at home and his worries about his Czech friends. There is a lovely link between his elderly coach, Mr Livingstone, and Leo’s wartime experiences, which is revealed at the end of the story.
Throughout the novel, Leo learns more about the experiences of people during WWII; the grim realities of life in Europe at that time; and his own struggles with his family. He also learns that he can overcome difficulties:
“Take it from me, Leo, at thirteen, you can do almost anything. Never forget this. Difficult things, courageous things: they are all possible, even at thirteen. No, especially at thirteen.”Running with Ivan, p39
Running with Ivan is a terrific example of how timeslip stories can immerse a reader in the past (or future) while remaining connected to their own present. I was especially moved to read that the idea for the story came from the author’s friendship with a Czech man who had himself experienced the horrors of Theresienstadt.
The book is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
After the gold rushes: ‘The Homecoming’ by Alison Stuart
In her new book, Aussie author Alison Stuart once again demonstrates her deep knowledge and love for the parts of Victoria that were the scene of frenzied gold rushes in the mid 1800’s.
The Homecoming is the third novel set in fictional Maiden’s Creek. The first two were The Postmistress and The Goldminer’s Sister.
This new story is set two decades after the last in the 1890’s, when the gold seams around the township are mostly exhausted. Residents needed to find new ways of making a living. The protagonists are two characters from the earlier novels: Charlotte (Charlie) O’Reilly and Danny Hunt. No longer children, they are brought back to Maiden’s Creek after years spent developing careers elsewhere: Charlie as a nurse and Danny a lawyer.
Both are dealing with the legacies of difficult circumstances from their childhoods and have returned to the town for different reasons.
While working as Matron of the small cottage hospital, Charlie is embroiled in a series of events that bring escalating danger to her and to others. Danny is dodging an enemy from his past who is intent on doing him harm. Then the town is engulfed by a dangerous flood which threatens everyone.
In the midst of all this, the pair find themselves increasingly pulled towards each other.
I took a while to get fully involved in this novel, perhaps because I had read The Goldminer’s Sister in 2020 and my memory had to work hard to recall the characters and events from that story. Having said that, The Homecoming would also make a satisfying stand-alone read without reference to the earlier books. There is mystery, romance and some terrific characters; all of which add up to a great addition to Australian historical fiction shelves.
The Homecoming is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Colonial immigration scheme: ‘Single and Free’ by Elizabeth Rushen
When we think about immigration to Australia, what springs to mind is sailing ships carrying the first white immigrants: convicts and their military guards. Next, we might think of the huge post-war influx of people from war-torn Europe, followed by successive groups of refugees from other war affected regions: Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa.
Easily forgotten in this mix are the brave, resilient and (for some) desperate women who chose to be part of an early colonial scheme administered by the London Emigration Committee in the 1830’s.
Historian and author Elizabeth Rushen has written a fascinating account of the way the scheme was established, the women who volunteered, and their fates once they arrived in the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania.)
There were fourteen ships altogether, which carried nearly 3000 single women from Britain and Ireland over a four-year period from 1833 to 1837.
Why did the colonial government invest time and money in such a scheme?
The main reason was the extreme gender imbalance in the colonies at the time. Male convicts and settlers outweighed women by over three men to each woman. This resulted in a shortage of female labour for the strictly gender-segregated jobs of domestic servant, governess, nurse, and agricultural roles such as dairy maid.
Also, the behavioural strictures and preoccupations of the period required women’s ‘moral’ influence to temper the behaviour of men. Not surprisingly, the applicants to the scheme needed to provide evidence of good behaviour and ‘respectability’.
Why would women volunteer for such an enormous, life-changing step? They left behind their homes, families, friends and communities, to face numerous perils and discomforts on a months-long voyage to an unknown place, where safety and decent employment could not be guaranteed.
Rushen’s research shows that, although the scheme initially aimed at recruiting poor women, there were in fact a mix of backgrounds of participants. Some of the women were indeed poor, desperate for an opportunity to make a living. Others were from educated middle class backgrounds. Some were simply up for a challenge, or a new life away from the constraints of their homeland.
The mismatch between the original aims and the realities of the scheme meant that the responses to the new arrivals were also mixed: ranging from welcome and support from some settlers to outright hostility from those who regarded the bounty immigrants as unfair competition for jobs, husbands, and homes.
The book is a deep dive into the scheme itself, the ships that brought the women to Australia, and especially, the women themselves. Who were they, why did they come, and what happened to them once they reached the colonies?
It’s a fascinating account of an often-overlooked episode of colonial history; and as Rushen concludes:
The vast majority of these women…made the voluntary decision to emigrate, their expatriation improving the quality of their lives…These were adventurous and courageous women who embraced the challenges of colonial life. (p176)
Single and Free: Female Migration to Australia 1833-1837
They contributed to the development of the colonies as domestic and agricultural workers, their enterprises as dressmakers, midwives and teachers, as wives and mothers of the rising generation. (back cover)
I have written before about the Good Girl Song Project and the musical production Voyage, which is based on the research and stories in this book. If you haven’t yet checked it out, do have a look at the website. It is a moving and entertaining portrayal through music and drama, of the experiences of some of the women who took part in this early colonial immigration scheme.
Single and Free: Female migration to Australia 1833-1837 was published by Anchor Books Australia, 2016
Delightful take on 40’s noir: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Little’ by Olivia Wearne
This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.
In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.
He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.
When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.
The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.
She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancé who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.
This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:
Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367
Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’
The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.
The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Travels with my ancestors #1: Things they would want me to know.
When I look at my family tree, going back seven or eight generations, I am astounded at the number of lives represented there. Each little icon, male or female, on the Ancestry.com screen, or names I’ve pencilled in on my hand drawn charts, is—was—a person. A person who was born, grew up, perhaps married, had children. A person who earned a living, learned stuff, developed likes, had their loves and their hatreds. Someone who eventually grew ill or suffered an accident or met their death in some other way. They left people who mourned them, remembered them, laughed with others about happy or funny moments, cried about the sad or terrible ones.
How many ancestors? I haven’t stopped to count them all. Trust me, there are many.
Every one of those individuals had to have lived and reproduced for me to be here. Every decision, mistake, accident of history has led to… me.
I am the unique product of all those people. My own experiences, decisions and actions have led to who I am, but so too have all the actions of past generations. Their DNA, mixed in the marvellous cocktail of life, resulted in: me.
That’s astounding, don’t you think?
Why then, do we weave or stomp or trudge or dance our way through life, giving scarcely a thought to the people who made us? Our parents, of course, usually get our attention; perhaps because they are there; perhaps family resemblance is strong enough for us to recognise the link that joins our own generation to theirs. Grandparents, too, can be more visible, due to proximity, or appearance in family photo albums, or in family stories.
Go back another generation and, well…the scene is a bit emptier. Great-grandparents and beyond: we might know names, and have a vague inkling of eras, if not specific dates when they lived, but most of us are unable to describe what sort of people they may have been.
Unless, of course, you get bitten by the family history bug.
In this, I was lucky. I grew up with many diverting stories about ancestors. My father was one of a huge number of Australians proud to claim a particular Second Fleet convict; my mother had several convicts in her family tree, plus some tantalising hints of romance and some murkier stories buried in the dry records of births, marriages and deaths. They had done much of the groundwork before me: constructing family trees and digging out those records (in the days when nothing was online, and everything had to be found in person at libraries and archive repositories.)
So, I suppose you could say I was bitten by the bug at an early age. Though it wasn’t until I’d left full-time work and had the time (and internet connection, laptop, and subscription to a family history platform) that the passion really took hold. Covid-lockdowns gave me plenty of time to dive down rabbit holes searching for that one person I needed to fill in on the tree, that one missing record or date, that hidden story.
Oh, the stories!
Romances, murders, deserted wives, divorces. Poverty, bravery, wartime heroics. Quiet fortitude and deep despair. People loving, birthing, fighting, killing, growing, leaving, losing, and winning. All of life, there in my family trees.
At the risk of sounding fanciful, I have come to believe that they would want me to know. Every story is part of the whole. Each person had their own story, important to them and to those who loved them. Something urges me to uncover their stories; while there are no doubt things that some ancestors, were they able to say, would rather that I didn’t know (crimes committed, mistakes made) I nevertheless believe I honour them by discovering and then telling their stories.
Beyond myself, the stories of my ancestors are threads that contribute to the tapestry that is Australia today. In both positive and negative ways, the ways in which they lived their lives, the choices they made and the results of those choices: all contributed to the big picture of this country I call home.
By uncovering these threads, I have a greater sense of belonging here, in this island nation on the other side of the globe from where my ancestors originated. Why did they come here? What circumstances, decisions or accidents led them to travel across the world to this place? Why did they stay?
If they had not come here, survived, stayed, married, and had children, then I would not exist. A twist of fate, or a small part of an ordained plan—I’m happy for that to remain a mystery.
I’m not happy to leave their lives to the mysterious past. I want to learn about my ancestors, and the part they played in the complex sequence of events that resulted in me.
I like to think they’d be happy about that, too.
Come with me on the journey as I travel with my ancestors. There may well be something in their stories that ignites something in you: a spark of recognition, or a longing to know more about your own family tree. What are its patterns, what characters and events are represented there? What are some of the stories of your ancestors?
Jackie French magic: ‘Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom’ Book #2 in Girls Who Changed the World
Jackie French is back with another historical story mixed with a touch of speculative fiction: Book #2 in the ‘Girls Who Changed the World’ series for middle grade readers.
Book #1 introduced Ming Qong, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who wants more from her school history lessons than the stories of men who won wars or invented things. Where were all the girls and women? Didn’t they do important things too, things that changed the world? Why aren’t their stories told?
In Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom, Ming is thrown back to the time of World War I, to Belgium in 1916. This time, her brother Tuan is with her.
They meet Marie, a youngster like them. Marie’s parents were killed, and her village and home destroyed by the German army, early in the war. Gradually Ming realises that Marie is working with the resistance group called ‘La Dame Blanche’ (The White Lady.) These women, men, girls and boys work locally, observing German troop movements, counting ammunition deliveries at the local railway station, passing food and supplies to those in need, hiding Belgians or Allied soldiers wanted by the Germans. They work in great secrecy: Ming and Tuan learn to guard what they say.
Ming even learns to knit in order to create coded messages in a scarf or quilt square that communicates important information via signals in the number or type of stitches: movements of troop trains, numbers of soldiers, trains carrying ordnance, dates and times. This was a technique actually used in Belgium by women during the war – one thing you can always count on in a Jackie French novel is the accuracy of historical details she includes.
The other type of work Ming experiences is foraging for firewood and food to feed and warm the orphans cared for in an unofficial ‘home’ by local women. Keeping civilians alive during wartime is also a form of resistance, usually performed by women and girls.
The clue to how Ming’s presence helps to change the trajectory of the war is revealed at the end. But the underlying message is threaded right throughout the story: the often overlooked and hidden role that women have always played in world history.
World War I was – big. A million stories or a million million, the story of every person who was there, or was affected by it across the world, for generations after it happened. Women’s stories had been lost in its vastness…Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272
‘Hundreds of thousands of women, possibly millions, all through that war,’ said Herstory quietly. ‘The women of World War I are remembered as nurses or mothers, sisters, wives or sweethearts waiting for the men they loved, not as resistance workers, intelligence agents, soldiers and others who fought too. So much work, and sacrifice and courage, all deleted. Tell their stories, because even now the world seems intent on forgetting.’
There are some difficult scenes, including an explosion of a trainload of mustard gas, the diabolical new German weapon to be unleashed at the front. Readers are not spared the suffering of those in the path of war.
Importantly, there is also hope for the future, and an emphasis that it can be small actions by unseen or overlooked people, that can result in big changes to make the world a better place.
Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.
All about empathy: ‘Waiting for the Storks’ by Katrina Nannestad
Australian author Katrina Nannestad is back with another in her series for middle-grade readers, about children in WWII Europe. This one is about Polish youngsters stolen by the Nazis to further their hideous Lebensborn program, during which children and babies who looked ‘Aryan’ were taken to be Germanised and adopted into German families.
The earlier books in this series, We Are Wolves and Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief dealt with the experiences of some German and Russian children.
All of the stories are about empathy: understanding that there are always many ‘sides’ in warfare, and that children and non-combatants are always the victims, regardless of which side they come from.
In Waiting for the Storks, Zofia is eight years old when she is kidnapped and taken away to become a ‘good German girl.’ The story accurately and sympathetically captures the ways in which brainwashing techniques such as punishment and reward, isolation and repetition are used to achieve the desired outcome – in this case, a complete obliteration of Zofia’s memories of her loving Polish family and home, and adoption of her new German identity.
There are small acts of resistance. A lovely scene is in the camp as the children are forced to learn German, where they use the meaningless phrases they are being taught in a way that expresses their defiance:
The nurse nods, satisfied. She walks away, but we keep speaking in German, because nurses have stethoscope ears and pinchy fingers and slappy hands and bad tempers.Waiting for the Storks p76
‘Hello’, says Kat, ‘I am a boy.’
‘Hello, says Jadwiga, rubbing her bald head. ‘I am a potato.’
‘Goodbye,’ says Maria. ‘I must go to the bathroom.’
We’re giggling now, sniggering into our soup. Even little Ewa. It’s brilliant, because we’re obeying the rules with our words, but not in our hearts.
A family game (‘Make a choice!) is used effectively as a motif throughout the story. So, where the choices with her parents were fun and light-hearted (Cream on your salami or gravy on your poppyseed cake? Make a choice!) they now become a survival strategy (Polish or German? Make a choice! and Orphan or beloved daughter? Make a choice!)
The descriptions of the ‘Germanisation’ process are quite realistic and troubling. This is a book for mature younger readers who can deal with themes of sadness, loss, cruelty. The rewards are many, though, including a deeper understanding of the best and worst in humans. There is light and hope at the end which I believe is important for readers of this age group.
Waiting for the Storks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Evocative: ‘The Butterfly Collector’ by Tea Cooper
On the same day in 1922 when Verity Binks loses her job at a Sydney newspaper (to make way for struggling WWI veterans), she receives a mysterious parcel in the mail. Inside is an invitation to attend the Sydney Masquerade Ball, along with a mask and costume designed to transform her into the guise of a beautiful orange and black butterfly.
She decides to accept the invitation and attend the ball when her former boss, the Editor at the Sydney Arrow, suggests that she write a profile story about the Treadwell Foundation, a charity for ‘young women in trouble’ (that is, women pregnant outside of marriage.) She hopes to meet Mr Treadwell at the Ball – and also to find out the source of her mysterious invitation and costume.
Not satisfied with the result, she travels to the little river town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, on a quest to find out more about the origins of the Treadwells and the Foundation. This is also where her beloved grandparents, Sid and Clarrie, lived in their younger days and where her father, Charlie, was born. Gradually, Verity learns that there is much more to the Treadwell story than first meets the eye. Together with Arlo, who has lived all his life in the town, she uncovers dark secrets about some of Morpeth’s past residents.
The Butterfly Collector is another of Tea Cooper’s successful dual-timeline historical mysteries. Woven in with Verity’s story is an earlier thread which relates the events of 1868 in the town of Morpeth, featuring Sid, Clarrie, Charlie and Arlo’s parents. Arlo’s mother, Theodora, is the butterfly collector of the novel’s title; a young woman fascinated by a spectacular new species of butterfly she encounters: the same orange and black of Verity’s costume.
Theodora’s and Verity’s stories are intertwined with the Treadwell’s and Verity’s investigations gradually uncover why. It’s cleverly plotted and well-paced, bringing the reader along with Verity and Theodora as they deal with the challenges and questions of their explorations.
A strength of Tea Cooper’s novels is the historical authenticity which comes from thorough research, but which never intrudes. Rather, we learn about the real-life places in past times incidentally, through vivid and evocative descriptions. I was especially drawn to this story because of its Hunter Valley setting: my father was born and grew up in West Maitland and one side of his family were early settlers around Morpeth.
Another aspect I enjoyed is that the protagonists are women with intelligence, agency and courage, not content to comply with social expectations for women at the time in which they live. They are not ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued by their hero. There is romance, but it is never the main point of Cooper’s stories.
The Butterfly Collector will be enjoyed by those who like well-researched historical fiction with a mystery to solve.
The Butterfly Collector is published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
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.
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 Proxy Bride p369
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 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.