• Books and reading,  History

    Accessible and engrossing historical story-telling: ‘The Schoolmaster’s Daughter’ by Jackie French

    What a national treasure Jackie French is! One of our most popular children’s authors (think Diary of a Wombat for picture books, A Waltz for Matilda, Pennies for Hitler, or Nanberry: Black Brother White for older children, she writes everything from historical fiction for adults, to fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction. Jackie was the Australian Children’s Laureate in 2014-15 and is a member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to literature and especially youth literacy.

    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is historical fiction for middle school (and older) readers. My love affair with historical fiction began around the age at which The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is aimed – ten and up – and I absorbed much of what I knew about the past at that age from my reading of fiction set in historical times. It’s one of the things that I love most about the genre – a young reader can learn so much from well researched books without it feeling like ‘learning history.’

    This new book by Jackie French is an excellent example. Set in 1901, as Australia enters a new century with a brand-new national Parliament and (as Hannah’s mother hopes) ‘laws made by every man and woman in Australia’ (p92) Hannah begins her new life in northern NSW, with her little brother, mother and father. Her father is about to start work as schoolmaster at the small school in Port Harris, named for the wealthy cane grower and landowner of the district. Hannah is full of excitement and plans about what she will learn at the school, her dreams of writing poetry and later, studying at university.

    Their arrival is marred by their ship becoming stranded and then wrecked in a storm just off the beach, and this sets the scene for what Hannah learns over the next few months. Things are not always as they seem on the surface, adults do not always say and do the right things, and cruelty and injustices exist everywhere. The book introduces the younger reader to important developments in Australia becoming a modern nation: Federation, women’s suffrage, and the right of all Australian children to schooling – but also to darker events such as racism, slavery, education denied to children because of their gender or skin colour.

    The author’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy shows in the tiny details of everyday life in this time and place: dress, food and cooking, transport, children’s games and books, schooling and education practices, popular songs, toys, books and poems. Younger readers might well be shocked to learn of the dark practice of ‘black birding’, where men from Pacific islands were brought (either against their will or through false pretenses) to work as virtual slaves on the sugar cane farms of northeastern Australia. And Australian children today might be surprised to read about the way girls were expected to behave during this period:

    A good girl put her family first. A good girl looked after younger children. A good girl would give Papa a cup of tea and a slice of Mrs Murphy’s horse-droppings fruit cake when he came back from school this afternoon, and apologise for her disobedience and promise she would never do it again.
    A good girl would never keep secrets from her father, like ordering books he didn’t know about, or studying with a young man with darker skin.

    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter p132

    Hannah is a sympathetic character and we feel for her as she puzzles out the hard truths she is confronted with. It’s also interesting to compare and contrast the challenges facing young people in the past with those experienced by their modern counterparts. Another opportunity for learning through historical fiction. I particularly liked that the author drew on her own family history as inspiration for this novel – proof of my belief that every family has stories and characters worth knowing.

    I loved this book and will tuck away my copy for when my grandkids (a boy and a girl) are old enough to read it.

    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was published by Harper Collins in May 2020.
    Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor2020
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    The story of a generous and beautiful Australian: Archie Roach’s memoir ‘Tell Me Why’

    I remember the first time I saw Archie Roach perform. I’d bought his first two albums (Charcoal Lane and Jamu Dreaming) and already loved his music, his voice, and the honesty of his songs. Walking into Doors always brought me to tears, perhaps because of my own life experiences years before. I’d not seen him perform live, until the Woodford Folk Festival (one of Australia’s biggest and most magical festivals) in the mid 1990’s.
    My sister and I left our arrival at the big tent venue where Archie was going to play a bit late, and ended up perched on a grassy hillock to one side, where we were crammed in with others who loved this man’s music and message. All I could see were his legs and feet!

    It didn’t matter. Archie’s sublime voice sailed out above the gathered crowd, touching hearts with his stories and his humble and generous manner. From that moment I was an avowed Archie fan.

    Tell Me Why is a memoir, tracing his incredible, tragic, wonderful life and career. Just as his songs (like Charcoal Lane, Took the Children Away, A Child was Born Here, Walking into Doors, Jamu Dreaming, or Weeping in the Forest) told the stories of this land and it’s history, Tell Me Why gives us insight into Archie’s own story, his journey through a childhood as one of the Stolen Generations, discovering as a schoolboy in Melbourne that he had a whole birth family elsewhere, and the many years he spent trying to discover and reconcile his indigenous identity.

    I found it shocking to realise that he grew up knowing nothing of the Stolen Generations, either at a personal level or the wider ramifications for indigenous Australians. Nor did he know about the ‘missions’, established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of corralling indigenous Australians into settlements, often away from their traditional country. These were among practices that were either about protection of indigenous Australians, or a form of apartheid making it easier for Europeans to take and occupy land. Whichever way you regard the motives behind these occurrences, the results were mostly tragic, with ramifications felt by generations to come. For Archie and many of his family and friends, this included struggles with addictions of various kinds:

    We were part of an obliterated culture, just intact enough to know it exists, but so broken we didn’t think we could ever be put together again. We’d lost mates and family young, and we would again. We had lineages we knew so little about. There was death in our past, and death in our future, but we craved a carefree and happy present, and booze offered us that.

    Tell Me Why p54

    Archie talks about his own struggles with alcoholism; his painful rehabilitation; grief at the untimely deaths of family members; his health challenges. There is joy, also: meeting Ruby Hunter, his life partner; creating a family together; discovering that for him, music might be more powerful than the drink. (p144)
    I laughed with him at his memory of one of his first big live gigs, opening for Paul Kelly & The Messengers at the Melbourne Concert Hall, when he didn’t know who Paul Kelly was and mistook him for a bouncer!

    Reading Archie’s reflections on life, people, and the ‘old ways’ of Aboriginal culture, there were reminders for me of the beautiful book Song Spirals, with its exploration of indigenous perceptions and beliefs about time, life and death. Here is Archie:

    There was no word for death, because life is an endless continuum – you didn’t die, you travelled; you left one place to go to another. Life kept going on, unceasingly. The Bundjalung didn’t have a word for ‘thanks’, either, with the closest being to ‘wish someone well’. There was no need to say anything if someone gave you something; you would just wish them well because sharing and generosity was expected.
    Even though I couldn’t speak my father’s language, when I sang in Bundjalung it felt as if I was doing something I’d done before long ago. It was in my memory.

    Tell Me Why p274

    Characteristically, the memoir finishes in his inclusive style, reflecting on what joins Australians together regardless of race or background:

    Now my songwriting feels more inclusive, more universal…I have come to realise that it’s about all of us – you can’t really write about yourself without including everyone. What affects you invariably affects others as well…Now my whole outlook on life is about reminding us all of the place where we all began, where we all came from …the ‘place of fire’…{It’s} a place of love and connection.

    Tell me Why pp 351-353

    This memoir will make you cry, feel anger, laugh out loud, and when you have finished, I promise you, your heart will be full of Archie’s generous and resilient spirit.

    Tell Me Why was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic

  • Books and reading,  History

    An engrossing wartime mystery that crosses generations: Sonya Bates’ ‘An Inheritance of Secrets’

    In her author’s note, Sonya Bates admits that she has a ‘fascination with secrets and mysteries’ and that this led her to write a very different novel than the one she’d planned to write. I, for one, am pleased she did, as I enjoy a tale with some secrets and twists. I read this book in record time, and would describe it as a ‘page turner’, but it is also a book that prompted me to think about some of the issues covered in its pages.

    To begin with, the question ‘How well can we really know another person, even a family member?’

    Juliet, the protagonist in An Inheritance of Secrets, must confront this question after the murder of her beloved grandparents, who emigrated to Australia after WWII. They were German, and Juliet knows that her Opa served in the German army. As events unfold after his death, Juliet realises that there were things she didn’t know about her grandparents’ lives before they came to Australia. She is caught up in a web of intrigue and danger, and urgently needs to find out more about what her grandfather may have been involved in during his youth. She is torn: does she really want to discover the truth if it means knowing that her Opa was not always the kind, loving man she’d believed him to be?

    There have been many real-life cases, in Australia and around the world, where later generations are confronted with unpleasant truths about beloved parents or grandparents – things they would rather not know. So we feel for Juliet, faced with this awful dilemma. Danger stalks her and she must find answers: who killed her grandparents and why? The tension ratchets as Juliet comes closer to the truth, making this novel an engrossing read.

    Along with the mystery, there are interesting characters who interact in believable ways: Juliet’s estranged sister Lily, her current boyfriend Jason, her old school friend Ellis, all of whom play a part in the drama. Juliet’s journey of discovery is about more than her grandparents – she learns about her family, her relationships, and about herself.

    There was so much I didn’t know about my grandparents. I’d known them only in their later years, seen them from the self-centred perspective of a child. Inside that letter were two people I’d never known, who I wanted to know, to bring those people to life in my memories, make my grandparents complete, something I should have done a long time ago.

    Inheritance of Secrets p125

    Who hasn’t had that realisation as an adult – that we need to move beyond the limited understandings of childhood, before we can appreciate our parents or grandparents, with flaws and all, as fully formed people who made choices in life? And don’t we all have to live with the consequences of our choices?

    This novel is a textured, absorbing thriller that ticked many boxes for me: a mystery from wartime Europe, a modern story line with a believable, sympathetic heroine, fast paced action and a satisfying emotional arc. A bonus: much of the modern day action takes place in Adelaide and Victor Harbour in South Australia, settings not often seen in novels but which work wonderfully in this story.

    An Inheritance of Secrets is published by Harper Collins, April 2020.

    Thanks to the publisher for an advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    The real stories of life after WWII – from the women of Australia: ‘The Women’s Pages’ by Victoria Purman

    I’ve always enjoyed looking at my mother’s photos of her life in Sydney in the late 1940’s. A young, single woman, she made her living working in a Surrey Hills dressmaking business, and her photos included outings with her workmates, all dressed up in bright, pretty frocks (which they sewed themselves) enjoying life in the immediate postwar time. They looked free from the worries and hardships that had plagued Australians during the long, hard war years.

    Photos only tell part of the story, of course. The apparently carefree expressions of the young women in my mother’s photos no doubt hid a multitude of troubles: financial worries, scars (both visible and invisible) carried by family members who served in the armed forces, grief for those who did not return, lingering shortages of food, fabrics, fuel and other necessities.

    It is these realities that feature in The Women’s Pages and make this novel’s portrayal of post-war Sydney life so convincing. The story opens on ‘Victory in the Pacific Day’ in August 1945. The main character, Tilly Galloway, observes the delirium of victory and the end of the war, in her role as a war correspondent for a major Sydney newspaper. The celebrations across the city last through the night and Tilly records all she sees and hears for her story.

    Tilly is a young woman who has shared the wartime hardships and grief of so many. Her young husband Archie disappeared during his service in New Guinea, and is presumed to have been taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Similarly, her flatmate Mary is longing for the return of her own husband, a prisoner at the notorious Changi prison camp. Tilly’s father is a waterside worker, with failing health and bitter, recent memories of the ‘Hungry Mile’, where desperate men thronged Sydney’s docks area, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work during the Depression years. (This area is now the Barangaroo development, housing restaurants, bars, offices and upmarket accommodation – a very different space from the grime and grit of its working class waterfront origins.) Money is tight for most people in Tilly’s world, and wartime shortages and rationing not yet eased.

    In addition, Tilly experiences the sexism and opposition of male colleagues who sexually harass, dismiss and disrespect women – and pay them less than the men. The scenes in which Tilly and other women confront these behaviours echo parts of Natasha Lester’s 2019 novel The French Photographer, which chronicles similar struggles faced by female war correspondents in the US and Europe during the same period.

    In The Women’s Pages, Tilly pushes hard to be allowed to cover the war but is only allowed to go as far as Darwin on a tour for female correspondents. When the war ends, she is relegated to stories about the ‘home front’ and things to do with women – though she knows that women want to read about much more than fashion and dinner parties. She is also confronted by the shocking inequities in the way different people are treated – war widows, those women who took on ‘men’s jobs’ during the war years, and those men physically or psychologically damaged by their wartime experiences (and their wives and families).

    While one might have thought the war had been a great equaliser, given death knew no class or rank distinction, Tilly realised that the war had only cemented Sydney’s social strata, not shattered it… Her anger at the inequality made bile rise in her throat.

    The Women’s Pages p363

    Reading about the ways in which Australians battled grief, anxiety and poverty was a timely reminder, in these COVID19 days, that being separated from loved ones, ‘making do’ with what you have, shortages in shops, coping with constant worry and uncertainty, and adjusting to new routines, are not unique to our time. There is even mention of the suspension of international and national cricket competitions – shades of the tumult faced in recent times by athletes and sporting groups around the world. If I didn’t know how long it takes to get a manuscript written, edited and published, I’d almost suspect that Victoria Purman began work on this novel just months ago!

    As news of atrocities committed in all theatres of war begin to filter through, Tilly realises that the suffering of so many – those returning from the front and those waiting for them at home – will continue. There is no instant fix and no guarantee that Australians can resume their previous lives anytime soon. Purman paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional upheavals confronting all Australians in this period. Her heroine, Tilly, and Tilly’s family, friends and colleagues, are believable and sympathetic characters. I cared about them. And Tilly’s decision to do what she can to address the injustices she sees, made me cheer.

    The Women’s Pages will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction firmly rooted in reality, and who like learning about the past while they get lost in a well told story.

    The Women’s Pages will be published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (Harper Collins) in September 2020.
    Thanks to HQ Fiction for an advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why memory matters: ‘I Want You to Know We’re Still Here’ by Esther Safran Foer

    This book’s subtitle is My family, the Holocaust and my search for truth. It is about momentous events in history (WWII, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust) but also about one family, their stories, and memory – the role it plays in defining us as individuals, as families and as a people. On the very first page the author sets the scene:

    I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.

    I want you to know we’re still here p3

    The title refers to her stated aim in writing the book: to let her ancestors know that they were not forgotten and that the family lives on. Later, she writes, How I wished they could see all the good that came later: the births, bar mitzvahs, the graduations and weddings, the great- and great-great grandchildren. (p179) A lovely moment comes at the end of the book, when at a gathering of the now large extended family living in America, one of her grandchildren quips Take that, Hitler! (p223)

    In the pages of this thought-provoking exploration of what it means to survive, to make decisions about whether to walk away from the past, to learn about it or to silence it, the author traces her own personal experiences. She knew that her parents had memories too terrible to commit to words (p8), she’d seen photos of long-dead relatives who had no direct descendants to tell their stories, and she embarked on the complicated path to tracing her father’s life. This involved meeting and speaking to many people who had knowledge of or a connection with her extended family, her parents, grandparents and others. She travelled to Ukraine to visit the site of the village that had once stood in the countryside and was populated by many Jewish families, but later destroyed after the Jewish residents were murdered. Poignantly she was able to track down and finally meet family and descendants of the man who had hidden her father from the Nazis and thus saved his life.

    There is so much to think about in this book. The author’s personal experiences and reflections are moving. They also touch on issues that resonated with me, an Australian reader with no direct connection with the events described. Reading about the theory of ‘postmemory’ first introduced by an American woman called Marianne Hirsch, I was prompted to consider the experiences of indigenous Australians since European invasion and colonisation. For example:

    The idea is that traumatic memories live on from one generation to the next, even if the later generation was not there to experience these events directly…the stories one grows up with are transmitted so affectively that they seem to constitute memories in their own right…these inherited memories – traumatic fragments of events – defy narrative reconstruction.

    I want you to know we’re still here p23

    This description is also true of the inter-generational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, from the numerous deaths by disease, the theft of land, the massacres, the policies of forced removal from livelihoods and families, and the incarcerations visited upon indigenous Australians during these years.
    (There are many indigenous authors who have published works of fiction and non fiction that explore some of the ways postmemory might well be a concept relevant to the Australian situation, including Melissa Lukashenko, (my review of Too Much Lip here) Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), and Archie Roach (Tell Me Why), among many others.)

    There are some terrible events described in this book, including murders of men, women and children, mass graves, the theft of clothing and valuables from those killed, other atrocities committed by the Nazis or those who did their bidding. There are also moments of light, love and honourable behaviour, including this reflection:

    From a Jewish perspective, action is what counts. You do the right thing. The feelings come later.

    I want you to know we’re still here p222

    For me, that’s a sentiment impossible to argue against.

    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here will be published in Australia by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 20 April 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A mix of tragedy and hope: ‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

    The Yield (shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize) introduces us to August, a young Wiradjuri woman from a fictional valley in NSW. August returns home when her beloved grandfather (‘Poppy’) dies, after she’d been living in England for some years. The reader quickly realises that August is something of a restless soul running away from – or searching for – several things, including the sorrow and guilt she experienced after the mysterious disappearance of her older sister Jedda, years ago.

    The author does not flinch from dealing with the troubling issues and problems that beset many indigenous communities around Australia. In doing so, she places them firmly within the context of inter-generational trauma, the fracturing of families, communities and culture that began with the colonisation of this country by the English just over two hundred years ago. August is dealing with her own childhood memories but also the hints of far bigger events that took place in and around her childhood home. Early in the book, she dreams about her grandfather speaking to her:

    …he was telling her that there was a lot to remembering the past, to having stories, to knowing your history, your childhood, but there is something to forgetting it too…There are few worse things than memory, yet fewer things better, he’d said. Be careful.

    The Yield p9

    This theme of memory is woven throughout the novel in several ways. While we never meet Poppy (Albert Gondiwindi) we are introduced to him through his book, a carefully compiled dictionary of lost words and phrases from the Wiradjuri language. This is such an effective device, bringing the reader as it does into his world view, touching on his own life experiences but also the history of white settlement of his country and the interactions between settlers and Wiradjuri. And his widow, August’s nana Elsie, tells August:

    There was a war here against the local people. In that war the biggest victim was the culture, you know?…Please don’t be a victim, Augie. It’s an easy road, that one…The land, the earth is the victim now – that needs an army, I reckon. She’s the one in real trouble.

    The Yield pp92, 93

    Certainly the valley is now under direct threat by a proposed tin mine that …slithered up like a snake – worse than a snake – ready to make a million, a billion or more for a couple of greedy mates. (p127)

    The place names in the novel’s fictional setting are a deliberate reminder of atrocities committed against indigenous people in the not too distant past: Massacre and Poisoned Waterhole Creek (both of which are real place names), Prosperous Mission, which is based on a real Aboriginal mission that operated in the 1880’s. There is also mention of the ‘homes’ to which Aboriginal children were taken after forcible removal from their parents; practices now known as the Stolen Generations.

    If in doubt about the extent or veracity of massacres and other atrocities, you may wish to look at the Colonial frontier massacres map of Australia, compiled by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities through University of Newcastle. It is a sobering website.

    Another thread running through the story is to do with the fictional Reverend Greenleaf, a Lutheran pastor of German heritage, who founded and ran Prosperous Mission in the 1800’s. During WWI he is the victim of anti-German sentiment and interred, and we read his impassioned plea for the welfare of the Aboriginal people of his district, foreseeing a grim future for them.

    All the disparate threads are brought together by the end of the novel and August is left reflecting on the changes brought about within herself. She thinks about her grandfather’s dictionary and the importance of their language:

    English had changed their tongues, the formation of their minds, August thought – she’d drifted in and out of herself all that time. The language was the poem she had looked for, communicating what English failed to say
    …I’m writing about the other time though, deep time. This is a big, big story, the big stuff goes on forever, time ropes and loops and is never straight, that’s the real story of time.

    The Yield pp306&2

    This is reminiscent of the reflections about time made by the Gay’wu Group of Women in their beautiful book Song Spirals. It prompted me to think again about the fascinating differences across human cultures, as well as the similarities.

    The Yield was published by Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House Aust) in 2019. It is an accessible story with beautiful language and imagery. It asks some deep questions such as: is Australia mature enough to embrace all aspects of its history, both ancient and more recent?
    The Yield is a worthy contender for the 2020 Stella Prize.

    #2020StellaPrize #AussieAuthor20 #readthestella

  • Books and reading,  History

    Poverty, society and religion conspire: ‘No Small Shame’ by Christine Bell

    No Small Shame takes the reader into the world of emigrants to Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century: specifically a young woman, Mary O’Donnell, from Irish Catholic roots who travels across the world to Australia in 1914. Her father and that of her childhood friend Liam are miners from Ireland who emigrated to Scotland in the hope of finding work. Now, they are uprooting once again to work ‘down the pits’ in Wonthaggi, a coal mining region of Victoria.

    The author immerses us in the appalling poverty of these families and communities: the cold, cramped row houses in Scotland, the deaths of babies and children from diseases like diphtheria and pneumonia, the grinding work in the pits, the smell of chamber pots and unwashed underarms. It is not a romantic picture of the past which is just as well, because there is precious little romance to be had in the lives of people like the O’Donnells and the Merrilees, nor in the life of Mary’s friend Winnie, married off in her teens to a surly, uncaring man who takes her to live on a farm outside of town – if ‘live’ is the right word here. ‘Survive’ is probably more accurate.

    Despite their unpromising start in life, Mary and Liam both dream of better things. Mary nurtures her secret love for the boy she grew up with, but her feelings don’t seem to be reciprocated. All Liam cares about is getting away from his family and the seemingly inevitable work in the mine with his father. he wants to buy a good house and have money to spend. To ‘be his own man.’ And his growing frustration leads him into a life of drink.

    Mary tries to muster dignity and defiance against everything that is ranged against her: her poverty, her employer, the religious and social strictures of the day, the unbending anger and resentment of her mother, her misplaced love and loyalty to an undeserving man. She finds herself in a situation all too common at that time, with a lack of agency a reality for so many women. It is a stark portrayal of the transactional nature of a loveless marriage:

    But life for them was never meant to be more than what it was. Even marriage didn’t mean you had to be happy every bloody minute of every bloody day.

    No Small Shame p337

    The author vividly illustrates how religious and social hypocrisies impacted unfairly on women, who were expected to uphold standards of virtue and responsibility that some men seemed to avoid. The edicts of church and community left no room for mistakes, or allowance for people to change.

    On top of all of this, the world is plunged into war which further strains families and communities to breaking point. Once the survivors return home, we see the cruel negligence of all who’d suffered in the fight for ‘King and Country.’ (As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I struggle with ANZAC Day commemorations each year – knowing that while our leaders mouth platitudes about ‘Lest We Forget’, the physical and mental health, and the family and financial well-being of returned service people, is still shockingly neglected.)

    Then the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic hits – which to a reader in 2020, echoes the panic and fear about the latest virus now sweeping the world.

    This might sound like No Small Shame is a litany of misery. There is sadness, despair and anger, yes. But the author shows us Mary’s growing internal defiance and her arguments with herself. The narrative is close third person, so the reader is able to hear Mary’s thoughts as well as watch her actions. Her voice in the novel is lovely – full of idioms of the day, especially of the working class Irish Catholic community in which she is placed. Mary develops a stronger sense of independence, a realisation that she must stand on her own two feet. She also has an ironic, humorous bent which helps to soften some of the more difficult aspects of life:

    With thousands of men gone to the front, she’d not reckoned on the Government decreeing it not proper for women to take over the jobs of men. What was the big call for women in Australia? Socks! Socks and pyjamas, thank you. Don’t trouble yourself to fill a real job, just sew and knit a bit! It made her wonder if women struggling in the bush to keep sheep alive in the drought, and bringing in a harvest with their menfolk away, knew they ought not to be doing ‘men’s’ work.

    No Small Shame, p197

    By the novel’s end, Mary has come to an acceptance of who she is and what she deserves in life, and is taking steps to change her situation for the better:

    Placid, good, gentle Julia. The type of wife and mother she could never be. She’d always be one to question the justice, or the lack.

    No Small Shame, p338

    This is Christine Bell’s debut novel for adults, though she has published many works of short fiction for both adults and children, and has also written a Young Adult manuscript. I hope she continues to write stories like this one, which brings history to life and also tells us important things about our own times.

    No Small Shame will be published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) on 1 April 2020. My thanks to Holly for an advance reader copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Intrigue and murder in the time of the Plantagenets: ‘The Lioness Wakes’ by Blanche d’Alpuget

    I’m a bit of a medieval and Tudor history tragic so the opportunity to delve into twelfth-century English and French goings-on (courtesy of Holly at Ventura Press) was most welcome. The Lioness Wakes (published March 2020 by Ventura Press) is the fourth in a series by Blanche d’Alpuget called ‘The Birth of the Plantagenets’. They were a dynasty that ruled England for over three centuries, had fourteen kings of England among their ranks and included the inter-family conflict known as The Wars of the Roses.

    The book opens with the bloody drama of the murder of Thomas Becket, one-time friend but now a thorn in the side of King Henry II. Henry may or may not have ordered this murder, but its consequences were to dog him, leading to rebellion and revolt throughout his kingdom and into lands controlled by him in what is now modern day France. With such a graphic start, the reader is plunged into the complexities and brutalities of twelfth-century European courts, monarchs and their families – especially the Plantagenets, riven by suspicion, plots and intrigue. A Netflix crime series has nothing on the drama of this period.

    Eleanor, wife of King Henry II, is a particularly compelling character. Known for her beauty, daring and intelligence, and the former wife of the French King Louis VII, Eleanor is behind a revolt against Henry, pitting their three sons against their father in the process. I recalled the character of Eleanor as portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter and it was with pleasure that I was introduced to her again in this novel. She was certainly a formidable woman and foe.

    Remembering stories of her son Richard, who succeeded Henry and became known as ‘Richard the Lionheart’ it was surprising to read d’Alpuget’s rather more unflattering picture of him as a young man – cruel, capricious and arrogant. Although they band together to oppose their father, there is no love lost between the three eldest Plantagenet sons – Henry the Younger, Richard, and Geoffrey. John (‘Baby’ in this book) later becomes the notorious Prince John in the Robin Hood legends and then King John of Magna Carta fame, but in this book he is a toddler, already spoiled by his adoring father.

    There are vivid pictures of the places peopled by the novel’s characters. In Scotland, for example:

    As the cold of an ill-tempered autumn laid thick sheets of ice on the surface of lakes, one morning of muted light he heard the screams of gulls and saw a dark outline rear through the fog. Edinburgh Castle was perched at the top of that monster of nature, Black Rock.

    The Lioness Wakes, p 143

    I wanted to draw a cloak around myself to keep out the chill air as I was reading.

    A few times I found the narrative a bit disjointed, but that may have been due to my lack of knowledge of events and some characters from the first three books of this series, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read. The story deals with complex (and at times for me confusing) negotiations and power plays between members of the European royalties and aristocracy. If we are ever tempted to think that self-serving and ambition are peculiar to modern-day politics, this novel swiftly puts that belief to rest:

    …centuries deep in their blood runs ambition, pride and aggression, generation after generation, back to the mists of the north wind.

    The Lioness Wakes p 148

    d’Alpuget shows how the Church, no less political, wielded huge power at a time when people of all stations in life were as likely to believe in dreams and magic as in miracles of the kind purportedly brought about by Thomas Becket after his death, and goddesses shared in the affection of villagers and nobles alike, along with the Virgin Mary.

    This novel is a vivid portrayal of events and people from a turbulent time in European history. I’ll be on the lookout for the first three books in the series, and the fifth and final book when published.

    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading,  History

    A sobering look at recent history: ‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

    I’m not sure when I realised that the practice of removing indigenous Australian children from their families (resulting in what is now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and the subject of the 2008 National Apology by then Prime Minister Keven Rudd) did not only happen way back in Australia’s history, but was still happening during my childhood in the 1960’s. The understanding that while I was growing up, safe and secure in a loving family, other children my age were in very different circumstances – grieving the loss of their parents and communities, frequently subjected to abuse and neglect in institutions charged with their care – appalled me, as I know it has many other Australians. This is not ‘history’ (locked in the pages of a text book about the past) but the lived experience of generations of Australian families.

    The White Girl (Queensland University Press, 2019) is in part an exploration of this blot on Australia’s record. The reader experiences 1960’s rural Australian life through the eyes of Odette, a strong and loving grandmother to Sissy, who she has cared for since her daughter Lila left their town after giving birth to her baby. Odette does not know where Lila is and has had to get on with the task of raising a granddaughter, drawing on her considerable personal resources of inner strength, kindness and respect for her culture and ancestors.

    But this was a time and place in which overt racism was part of the everyday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and Odette and Sissy experience the worst and the best of people as they go about their lives in their small community. The local policeman, Bill O’Shea, went to primary school with Odette and they were friends back then – but he is now an alcoholic reaching the end of his career and prefers to turn a blind eye to the goings-on in town, including the bullying and aggressive behaviour of Joe Kane and his eldest son Aaron, who takes against Odette and Sissy and threatens harm.

    Then along comes a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, who is determined to be the new broom the town needs and who takes seriously his responsibilities as the official guardian of the Aboriginal people in it. Unfortunately for Odette and Sissy, what this means is that he is set on removing Sissy from her grandmother’s care because in his view, an Aboriginal family is no place for a child to grow up, especially one who could ‘pass’ as white – like Sissy.

    Matters are complicated by Odette’s health problems and she must find a way to protect Sissy from Lowe while dealing with her own uncertain future.

    Along the way the reader is confronted by difficult truths about black/white relations at this time. For example, Lowe has a chart in his office on which he has listed each Aboriginal child in the local area, along with descriptions such as half-caste, quarter-caste and octoroon. Sissy is listed here, categorised as near white (p 115) Later, Odette reflects that:

    …white people were fascinated with the skin colour of Aboriginal people, and what it might indicate…(She) understood that what this woman really wanted to know was how she’d inherited the white blood she carried and who it had come from. Odette didn’t know the answer to such questions. All she knew was that the women in her family loved all their children, regardless of the suffering and violence that had created them.

    p 146

    Through Odette, Tony Birch suggests that the appalling and cruel behaviour exhibited by white people in authority over indigenous people, comes about because in order to carry out unjust government policies and laws, they needed to see Aboriginal people as ‘other’ and somehow at fault. Odette comments to her friend Jack:

    Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job. This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry with us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.

    p 164

    The novel also deals with the so-called ‘exemption certificate’ that some Aboriginal people applied for. In essence, it was a document stating that they were no longer to be considered Aboriginal – which meant no longer subject to the laws and regulations governing every aspect of life for indigenous people under the Aboriginal Protection Act. Where you lived, if you were allowed to travel, who you might marry – these were all controlled by the relevant Protector or his delegates. Birch deals sensitively with what I am imagine has been a contested and difficult issue for many indigenous people, families and communities.

    One of Odette’s friends answers Jack when he asks ‘What will we do, then?’ with the following:

    What we’ve always done. Keep our heads down, think smart and get on the move again if the need comes.’

    p 247

    What gets Odette through such difficulties are her recollections of a happy childhood, a loving marriage, and her connections to the natural world and the old people – her ancestors. She teaches Sissy about these things too, hoping that her granddaughter’s strong will and Odette’s love will guide her through life.

    Each night, before Odette fell asleep, she asked the old people for help, that she would not lose Sissy as well.

    p 42

    The White Girl is a beautiful book that deals sensitively with confronting issues of Australia’s past – and present.

    For more information on Tony Birch and his books, see the UQP website.

    #AussieAuthor20
  • Books and reading,  History

    Why we are still searching for meaning: Viktor Frankl’s book, seventy four years on

    Frankl first published Man’s Search for Meaning in Germany in 1946. It is a book about surviving the horrors of several Nazi concentration camps during WWII – and the book was written and published just one year after the war ended. On reading his account of what he saw and experienced in those camps, and the conclusions he drew about human psychology and behaviour, I was astounded that someone who had experienced what he had, could write with such heart and clarity so soon afterwards.

    Photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto from Pexels

    Before the war Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna. He was sent, along with his wife, to Auschwitz camp, and spent time at Dachau and other camps until liberation at the end of the war. By this time his family, except for a sister, had perished. He used his observations and his own experiences of life inside the camps, to further develop his psychological theory known as Logotherapy. In essence, Frankl came to believe that the sort of person the camps’ prisoners became during their time there, was the result of an inner decision that each prisoner made, as much as the experiences and conditions in the camps. Frankl died in 1997 at the grand age of 92.

    The version of his book I read was published by Penguin Random House in 2008, translated by Ilse Lasch, and comprised two parts: firstly an account of his wartime experiences, and secondly a description of his theory of Logotherapy and how the two are related. I will be honest and say that for me, the most gripping part was definitely the first, full as it is of acute observations of human behaviour under the most trying of circumstances imaginable.

    He describes the three stages of prisoner response to incarceration: The illusion of reprieve (characterised by shock, or when the individual imagines that what is to come will be short-lived, or not so bad); the phase of apathy (a kind of emotional death but also a very necessary protective shell); and the final stage which comes after freedom is restored, which can include everything from joy to bitterness.

    He states that every person’s deepest desire is for meaning and purpose in life. This can come through completing work or deeds, by experiencing and loving others or nature, beauty or culture, or by how we approach and experience the inevitable suffering that occurs in life.

    Frankl, commenting on prisoners who showed kindness to others despite their horrific treatment by guards and SS, stated that these individuals proved that:

    …everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

    p 74

    Several points made by Frankl in this book resonated for their modern parallels. His comment on the detrimental effects of prisoners’ uncertainty about the likely duration of their incarceration, or the possibility that they would die there, made me think of modern-day asylum seekers in immigration detention centres around the world, including those held in camps run on behalf of the Australian Government. For many of those prisoners, the uncertainty about how long they will remain prisoners is one of the most crippling aspects of their imprisonment.

    Like so much that is written about the Holocaust, Frankl’s experiences have been contested, and aspects of his earlier life, his account of his imprisonment, and his psycho-therapeutic theories and methods, have all been questioned. I suppose it is up to each of us to decide what we think about all this. However, I found Man’s Search for Meaning a very thought-provoking and engrossing read, seventy four years after its first publication.