• Books and reading,  History

    A heartfelt search for the truth: ‘The Other Side of Absence’ by Betty O’Neill

    The Other Side of Absence is Betty O’Neill’s debut memoir. The author information tells us that she is a writer and teacher in areas such as writing family history, the Cold War, migration and the domestic space as an archive. This wonderful book includes all of these themes, and more.

    She begins by explaining her unusual family situation. Her mother Nora, a young Australian woman on working holiday in England in 1952, met and fell in love with Antoni (Tony), a Polish political refugee. Tony had joined the remnant Polish army under British command in Italy at the end of the war, but later moved to England where he worked for a time at the Bata Shoe Company. (That company name rang bells for me; Bata school shoes were de rigueur for Aussie kids in the 1960’s and 70’s but I didn’t know it was a British company.)

    Tony was older, well dressed and charming. After a brief courtship they married and soon Nora was pregnant with Betty. Nora’s mother sponsored Tony to emigrate to Australia and in 1954 Nora and Betty moved to Lismore, NSW, to live with her. Tony arrived eight months later. Within days, he had disappeared: gone from their lives with no word of explanation. Betty did not meet her father until she was nineteen – a troubling connection with a damaged and troubling man – and soon after that he returned to Poland. She never saw him again.

    It is with this family background that Betty navigated life as a young adult, but not until later did she begin the search for her father’s story. Who was he? What did he experience as a member of the Polish resistance during the war, and then as a political prisoner at three Nazi concentration camps? What damage was inflicted on him during this time? Why did he marry her mother but then desert his wife and infant child? What motivated him to make contact with Betty when she was nineteen? What about her Polish family – who were they and what stories did they have to tell about their lives and about Tony?

    These questions took her to Poland and Austria to retrace her father’s history, his movements and experiences during the war, his life once he returned to Poland from Australia. There were many surprises and troubling revelations in store for Betty as she dug deeper into the past. In the process Betty faced the impact of her father’s experiences on her own life:

    I attempted not to judge anyone, particularly not my father, but my knuckles were white holding onto the see-saw of emotions, trying not to fall off…
    I knew that crush of feeling unwanted. I had felt it when each of my parents left me..It never leaves when it is imprinted onto a tiny heart. A shaft of darkness was embedded from deep within me to just under the skin. It painfully broke through from time to time. I could easily recognise it in others.

    The Other Side of Absence p183-184

    The author’s research and personal visits to significant wartime sites, add depth and authenticity to this story of discovery and growing understanding. She describes the feeling when she saw her father’s prisoner card from Auschwitz concentration camp – in a small way I have experienced a similar thrill at finding my ancestors’ names on convict muster lists from the nineteenth century, although of course the emotional punch was much less in my case. She also reflects on the way trauma plays out from one generation to the next. Her conclusions are beautifully nuanced:

    Not knowing and wondering had been replaced by understanding and acceptance in ways I could never have predicted. The past no longer haunted my present. I’d come to an appreciation of human complexity: not good or bad but layered by circumstance and context.

    The Other Side of Absence p288-289

    This memoir, like others I have read (such as Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning, or Esther Safran Foer’s I want you to know we’re still here), illuminate the present by examining the past.
    The Other Side of Absence is a beautifully written, engrossing and heartfelt addition to Australian memoir.

    The Other Side of Absence is published by Impact Press in August 2020.
    My sincere thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic
    ##AWW2020

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother VI: Travelling back to colonial times

    This is the sixth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    This, in conversation with Mum:

    Mum: I’m so tired, love. But I’m not doing anything today. I got back yesterday from a trip out, like I used to do, on a pony. Just me and another woman. We’d have a pony each and we’d set out from North Richmond and decide: this way or that way? So this time I chose north.

    Me: ‘What was there?’

    Mum: Not much back then. I’d follow the river for a bit and find a few people—squatters—on the river bank. I’d say ‘I’m here to help you. Is there anything you need?’ But they were usually very suspicious, like they thought I was there to interfere. They didn’t like the idea of being moved off the land.
    They’d say: ‘We don’t need anything, go away, leave us in peace.’
    Anyway, all that was a long time ago. Must be twenty years ago.

    Me: ‘Did you enjoy those pony rides?’

    Mum: It was an adventure. And I felt I was doing good for others because every now and then I’d come across someone who needed my help. But I don’t think I could ride all that way on a pony any more. I suppose if I tried it now I’d get a right old backache!’

    As usual after one of these chats, I went searching for the golden nuggets of truth in her words. To my knowledge, Mum has never ridden a horse or pony in her life. To dig deeper, to the emotion of her tale, I see it is about freedom and choice: the ability to make decisions about where she wanted to be; and to be able to move about with ease. Two things no longer available to her.

    And, just as importantly, the wish to feel needed – to be of use. Most of Mum’s life has been spent ‘doing’ for others in some way: home maker, income earner, family glue. And outside of the home and family, she took on roles in community, school, leisure activities. Always busy, a wonderful organiser and contributor.

    In the tale of her pony rides, she also references early days of settlement of the Hawkesbury district. She married into a family with deep roots in this region going back to the Second Fleet of convicts in the late 1700’s. The Eathers, from whom I am descended through my father, were among the earliest of English convicts and later settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Mum’s own family history also features several convicts who eventually settled along South Creek.

    In the past couple of years, I’ve been talking with Mum about our ancestors and about early colonial days. I’ve delved deeper into family history, as I began to write fiction inspired by some of these people and places. Several decades ago, Mum was a keen family historian and did a great deal of leg work in researching and documenting the lives of our forebears. I picked up from where she had left off. So perhaps its no surprise that images of ‘squatters’ and settlers along the once wild Hawkesbury region feature in her imaginings.

    I’m glad that she is able to live out stories of colonial days in her thoughts and fancies as she ventures into new territories.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Books and reading,  History

    A WWII story with a focus on women: ‘The German Midwife’ by Mandy Robotham

    Along with writing historical fiction, Mandy Robotham delivers babies. She is an experienced midwife – and it shows in this, her debut novel. The story opens in a Nazi labour camp during WWII, where Anke, the midwife of the book’s title, is imprisoned for helping pregnant women in the enforced Jewish ghetto of Berlin.

    Immediately we are plunged into the darkness, despair and filth of the camp, where giving birth is another trial to be faced by exhausted women weakened by harsh conditions and malnutrition. Having endured labour and birthed a child, their babies are ripped from their arms to be murdered by the guards. This is not a war story where miracles happen and people live happily ever after.

    Then Anke is transported from the camp and taken to a mansion high in the mountains, which we learn is the Berghof, Hitler’s luxury Bavarian complex. She is to be midwife to none other than Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. This is the what if? question at the heart of the novel: if Hitler had fathered a child, what might that have meant for the Reich, the progress of the war, and the victims of that war – including the midwife and her family, who are all at the mercy of the Nazis and their leader?

    At a deeper, more personal and profound level, the question becomes: how should a person act in such circumstances? What is the right choice: to care for a woman and her innocent child, or to sacrifice either or both for the greater good?

    The stakes are high for Anke as she navigates her way through this treacherous territory. There are flashbacks to her loving family before the war, her work in a Berlin hospital as the Nazis ramp up their cruelty and their control of the nation, and to Anke’s actions which lead to her arrest and imprisonment in the camp. There are examples of the various ways in which ordinary people coped and survived in a world that had become savage and unforgiving. Anke’s dilemma underlines everything from the moment she is chosen to be Eva Braun’s midwife:

    I didn’t know whether to be grateful for my life chance, or angry at her naivety. A thought flashed, ‘a child within a child,’ and I forced a smile in response, while every sinew in me twirled and knotted.

    The German Midwife p62

    One thing that makes this novel stand out from others set during WWII and the Nazi regime, is that childbirth, and the midwives who assist, are the central points around which the story spins. Against a backdrop of widespread death and destruction, the descriptions of birthing are a welcome shift of attention to the act of creation of new life. The midwifery expertise of the author lends great credibility to these scenes: they are believable; never once do they feel gratuitous. The birthing scenes are there for a reason and they anchor the protagonist to a reality other than the one presented by war. Anke reflects on this:

    I soon realised my role – and that of the ten or so other qualified midwives in the camp – was to bring dignity where we couldn’t prolong life. We could create memories, perhaps of only hours or days, where kindness and humanity won out…
    Each of us had our way of creating a small world impenetrable to the harsh reality of noise and stench around us. It was a tiny cosmos where we cried and laughed with them, where we held a space – perhaps only for a few minutes – so pure that only their child, their baby, existed for that time. Their history. The burning ache of a child’s parting was no less painful, but alongside the sadness sat memories of what they did for their babies – memories of being mothers.

    The German Midwife p280

    The German Midwife has plenty of tension as the pregnancy of Eva Braun plays out, and plenty of drama. At its core, though, is an invitation to ask ourselves: What would I do, if this were me? What is the right choice in a world where every decision is fundamentally flawed?
    It’s a gripping read with the experience of women at its heart.

    The German Midwife is published by Harper Collins Australia in
    August 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Travels with my mother V: History

    This is the fifth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    I found Mum’s high school history notebooks, tucked away in a treasure box. On a recent visit, we went through them together. She had written copious notes in beautiful handwriting; no doubt copied from the blackboard or from textbooks, as was customary in the early 1940’s.

    The world was at war, Britain fighting to maintain its sovereignty but also its empire. The lessons Mum wrote were all to do with struggles of the past: British royals, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, British dominions in India and Australia. Captain Cook, Arthur Phillip, colonial expansion, ‘troublesome natives’ and ‘lazy convicts.’ ( Mum pulled a face when I read aloud the last two references, rightly shocking today. I was pleased to see her sense of injustice had not been diluted by the years.)
    She recognised her old Phillips School Atlas with it’s red cover. Almost half the world was coloured pink back then – pink for the British Empire.

    When we discussed her school years, she remembered some things differently. She said she’d had to go to the ‘domestic high school’ because she wasn’t good enough to attend the more academic school. I reminded her that she’d been more than smart enough, but economics and transport problems made attending the more distant school impossible; she’d had to be content with learning domestic science, sewing and cooking at the closer school. She looked both uncertain and pleased by this reminder. Mum was always justifiably proud of her clever mind and aptitude at study and I was saddened to think that this capacity was something she no longer recognised.

    The conversation showed that there can be different versions of history, depending on who is doing the telling, when and why. And that memory can be an unreliable narrator at the best of times.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship and misdeeds on Victoria’s goldfields: ‘The Goldminer’s Sister’ by Alison Stuart

    Alison Stuart lives in an historic town in Victoria and it shows in her writing. The Goldminer’s Sister is her second novel featuring places and events from Australia’s past. Set in a fictional 1870’s Victorian goldfields town of Maiden Creek, the author conjures the dirt, noise, hard living conditions and gold fever of the times brilliantly. Even more impressive are her descriptions of the mines themselves – the never-ending thud of the ‘stampers’, the ever-present risk of mine collapse, the dark tunnels following the gold seams.

    Around this rich background she has woven a story of greed, loss and love. The protagonist is Eliza, who arrives from England after the death of her parents, hoping to be reunited with her beloved brother Will. Arriving at Maiden’s Creek, she is greeted by her uncle Charles Cowper and the news that Will died in a recent fall at the mine. Shocked, Eliza realises she is now alone in the world and work out how she is to support herself.

    She meets many of the town’s inhabitants; those who have made good money through mining and those less fortunate who live on the edges of the community. Alec McLeod is a mining engineer who works at her uncle’s mine. He has his own sorrows and secrets, but events bring them together as both Alec and Eliza begin to suspect that Will’s death might not have been an accident.

    Stuart has conjured the atmosphere of ‘gold fever’ well – the way the prospect of instant unbelievable wealth drew people from all backgrounds to try their luck at mining. Crime flourished, and if the risk of mining accidents was not enough, there was also the threat posed by bushrangers who roamed the trails between the goldfields and Melbourne or other bigger towns. The author does not flinch from portraying the grim reality of life for those who don’t strike it lucky: the prostitutes, sly grog dealers and children from poor families for example.

    Eliza is a sympathetic character whose circumstances are less than ideal but who nonetheless shows courage and compassion throughout.

    The Goldminer’s Sister is a satisfying novel with intrigue, action and a dash of romance set amidst a compelling and dramatic chapter of Australian history.

    It was published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Australia), in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother IV: Show and Tell

    This is the fourth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    Mum seemed flat this morning: subdued and disconnected. I spoke about bits and pieces for a while and she was polite, but her interest flagged quickly. When I pulled out the items I had brought to show her, her demeanour changed.

    In the past few weeks I’ve used a sort of ‘Show and Tell’ on my visits with Mum. While her eyesight is now so poor as to make it almost impossible for her to properly ‘see’ an item, she can still touch, hold, or smell one. She enjoys old photos, not quite ‘seeing’ them, but hearing my descriptions of the people and places in each. I’ve heard Mum’s stories about the photos in the old family album – those tiny sepia images -and I can now tell them back to her. It’s the stories of the photos, not the images themselves, that we connect with. Occasionally, a memory will be sparked and Mum will travel down a path from long ago. At the very least, we talk.

    On this visit, the items I took for my ‘Show and Tell’ included a chic little navy blue handbag (circa 1951). Inside were several hat pins, a girl guide badge, and a tiny harmonica, no bigger than half the length of my thumb, in its little box.

    I placed the handbag on the table in front of Mum. Recognition was slow, but when I told her my guess that this was a bag she had purchased to go with her wedding outfit, an expression of puzzled pleasure crossed her face. We looked at the wedding photo on her shelf and examined the pretty pale blue dress she had worn on that day.

    Next were the hat pins, in their spongy cushion. I touched Mum’s fingers to the rounded bobbles on their ends. She had no recollection of hat pins. When I suggested she may well have used the one whose bobble was a soft blue-grey colour to hold her wedding hat with its tiny veil in place (the colour complementing both hat and dress) she nodded, pleased.

    The tarnished Girl Guides badge was another mystery to be explored. It prompted a look through the photo album and there, as I’d remembered, were three cloth ‘merit badges’ which Mum had earned during her time as a Girl Guide. She traced the stitching on the badges with a forefinger, with a look close to wonder. Was she recalling this long ago time? Or pushing her damaged memory to try, try, try to bring it back?

    Finally, I placed in Mum’s palm the miniature mouth organ. Her fingers explored it but no idea came to her as to its purpose. I blew into it gently and we heard its distinctive sounds.

    ‘Dad had a proper mouth organ,’ I said. ‘I don’t remember him playing it but he used to talk about his time in the brass band when he was a youngster. I think he played trombone?’
    I smiled: as always, the image of my skinny dad with a skinny trombone was irresistible. ‘I’m guessing this little mouth organ was his too.’
    Mum looked mystified.
    ‘But what would it be doing inside my handbag?’

    That, we will most likely never know.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Travels with my mother III: Wedding Ring

    This is the third in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    I wear my mother’s wedding ring. She stopped wearing it several years ago; possibly she worried about losing it. It’s a plain, narrow gold band – my father was broke back then, as for much of his life, so a larger or fancier ring was out of the question.

    I love it. I remember as a child, trying it on and pretending that I was a ‘married lady.’ The idea had seemed both attractive and ridiculous. Now I wear it as a tribute to my mother – her absence of need for showiness, her discomfort with ostentation. Mum was – is – a simple woman in many ways, though possessed of complexities in others.

    To me, this plain little ring also symbolises the ordinary comforts of Mum’s life: the old houses she lived in, which had needed close attention and much effort to become family homes; the plain but nourishing meals she prepared; likewise the many apple pies, jams, cakes and sweets she made for her family and for community fund raising; the clothing she sewed and knitted for us.

    Almost everything Mum did was achieved in less than perfect circumstances, but added so much to the lives of others. All of which is held in the memories evoked by one unadorned golden ring.

    My Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1951. Mum sewed the pale blue, knee length, sweetheart neckline dress herself. An unusual choice in the early 1950’s; I suspect partly out of necessity due to limited funds and partly Mum’s wish to be a bit different from the norms of the time.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Books and reading,  History

    Indigenous Literature Week 2020

    This week, 5 – 11 June, is Indigenous Literature Week, celebrating the richness of fiction, non fiction, poetry, memoir and biography authored by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australians. Of course, July is also NAIDOC time, during which events are usually held to mark the culture, history and achievements of indigenous Australians. Due to Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, NAIDOC events will be planned for November.

    But we can still safely honour National Indigenous Literature Week in July. To find out more about NAIDOC and Indigenous Literature Week, check out these links.

    Over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, there is a wonderful list of titles by indigenous authors in both Australia and New Zealand that could serve as a good launching point for anyone wanting to read more indigenous authors. And below are links to books that I have posted about here on my blog. I would recommend each of these books; they all have something special.

    Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
    Taboo by Kim Scott
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
    Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
    The White Girl by Tony Birch
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    SongSpirals by the Gay’Wu Group of Women

    #IndigLitWeek

  • Books and reading,  History

    Chaos and conflict in post-war Europe: ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’ by Celia Rees

    Don’t be fooled by the cover or title of this new novel by English writer Celia Rees. This is no light and fluffy historical romance, but rather a gripping thriller set during Europe in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of a vicious war that had destroyed so much.

    The protagonist is Edith Graham, whose rather dreary life as a teacher in war-torn England transforms when she is offered the opportunity to join the British Control Commission in Germany as an education officer, tasked with re-establishing schools within that shattered country.

    I’d not thought much about what life was like for Germans immediately following their defeat, apart from images of bombed-out cities and hungry survivors. The picture painted in this novel is of a people struggling to deal with military occupation by the Allied forces, revealing its darker aspects: a flourishing black market, the flaunting of regulations by many of the populace, lingering anti-Semitism not only amongst some Germans but some of the Allied occupiers as well. Most distasteful of all is the manoeuvring for power by the occupiers, once allies, who were now fighting for control of the resources (both physical and intellectual) left by the defeated Nazi regime. There is suspicion, betrayal and double-dealing aplenty, as Edith soon discovers.

    We get glimpses of Edith’s life before the war, including her brief affair with a handsome German man, Kurt von Stavenow, later meeting his beautiful, wealthy wife Elisabeth, and her interest in cookery and collecting recipes from different part of the world. Edith not only accepts the challenge of working for the Control Commission, but also takes on a hidden role as a spy, which she comes to via her cousin Leo.

    In this, Edith’s role is to gather information and contacts of Germans who have escaped arrest for war crimes. The horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe are revealed as she pursues this work, and she smuggles coded messages back to England within innocent-looking recipes. This is where the ‘Cookbook’ of the title comes in. It’s a clever device and a lovely motif that ties the various parts of Edith’s story together as the novel progresses, also illuminating the culture and experiences of the people she encounters.

    She made notes as Hilde described what to do, remembering her home, her family, her mother and grandmother’s kitchen. A whole world came spilling out with the sifting and stirring of each ingredient…Grandmother, bundt tin, everything, gone in the raid on Hanover that had sent Hilde north to find refuge…

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p228

    There is plenty more intrigue and drama in the novel, heartbreak and hope, which I think is perhaps the most-needed commodity in a world that has been almost destroyed. Edith is a wonderful heroine, an ‘ordinary’ young woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and who has to make difficult choices because of it. She reflects on what lies ahead for Germany when observing young children in their resource-starved schools, in this way:

    How resilient these children were, she thought, how inventive. They had lost everything. Homes. Fathers. Mothers. Their young lives had been shattered like their surroundings by a war that was no fault of theirs but they still managed to conjure a playground out of a bombsite. If this country had a future, it lay with them.

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p363

    The novel kept me guessing to the end of the book, and the conclusion made me go back and re-read the prologue so that I could put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s a well plotted and intriguing story.

    Readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns, a dash or romance, and plenty to think about, will enjoy
    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook.
    It will be published by Harper Collins in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott: a novel of reconciliation

    This novel by Western Australian Noongar author Kim Scott was published in 2017 and won a swag of awards including the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize, and shortlisted for many others including the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

    It is a novel about reconciliation between black and white Australia, specifically between a group of Noongar people who come together to try to lay to rest the ghosts of those who died in a corner of south western WA at the hands of white settlers in the nineteenth century. The property where the massacre happened is near the fictional town of Kokanarup, but the historical events are based on atrocities that actually took place.

    In the novel, Dan Horton is an elderly widower who runs the farm on which the massacres occurred. His ancestors were complicit in the murders and he is keen to offer a hand of friendship to the descendants of those who died. He gets involved in planning for a Peace Park in town and invites the Noongar people to visit his property, as a well meaning act of reconciliation between his family and the families of those who were wronged.

    Dan learns that Tilly, a high school student, will be joining the visitors and his hearts lifts. Tilly was fostered by Dan and his wife Janet when she was a baby, when her Noongar father was incarcerated and her non indigenous mother unable to cope for a time. Dan has fond memories of that time and longs to see Tilly again. But the visit does not go as he’d planned and hoped for.

    The visitors gather at a local caravan park for a ‘culture camp’, during which several elders teach some of the Noongar language, culture and ceremony. The camp also serves as an informal ‘rehab’ for those needing time and space to have a break from alcohol or drug addiction. We follow Tilly as she observes people going about the various activities. She feels like an outsider, having only fairly recently met her father (before he died and was still in prison) and her Noongar extended family, who nevertheless welcome her with a loving embrace. The reader is given hints, small glimpses via flashbacks or partial memories, of Tilly’s own trauma at the hands of a depraved and cruel white man, as she tries to reconcile her own past and the connections between her black and white heritages.

    The novel has moments of humour and characters that are recognisable though never caricatures. There are some cringe-worthy moments, including the well meaning but completely uninformed (and non-indigenous) Aboriginal support person at Tilly’s school, for example.

    The core of the novel is how the language and culture of the Noongar people, hold the disparate group together. Kim Scott explores how language can be a strength that people can draw on in difficult times, to make sense of their experiences and histories, and to forge a way forward into the future.

    It’s language brings things properly alive.

    Taboo p197

    This novel does not shirk from the difficult parts of Aboriginal and white shared histories. It also does not shy away from the betrayals and cruelties that people can inflict on each other. It does offer hope, that with goodwill we can move to a better future.

    Here’s a short YouTube video of Kim Scott reading from the opening of Taboo. It includes these beautiful sentences:

    …we are hardly alone in having been clumsy, and having stumbled and struggled to properly breathe and speak and find our place again. But we were never hungry for human flesh, or revenge of any kind. Our people gave up on that payback stuff a long time ago.

    Kim Scott from Taboo

    Taboo was published in 2017 by Picador

    #AussieAuthor20