A story of survival: ‘The Woman With the Blue Star’ by Pam Jenoff
I had not known that Jews in Poland wore a blue star, rather than yellow, under the Nazi regime. Nor did I know the horrifying fact that some Jews survived detection by living underground – in the city sewer tunnels, along with the filth, the damp and the rats. These were two new things I learnt as a result of reading Pam Jenoff’s The Woman with the Blue Star.
Set in Krakow in 1942, the novel tells the story of two young women – Sadie, an eighteen year old Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis and Polish police during their ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto, and Ella, who is from an affluent Polish family. Ella lives with her hated stepmother in relative comfort (in large part due to her stepmother’s consorting with German men.) Ella spots Sadie’s face one morning through a sewer grate and comes to realise that Sadie (and others) are in hiding down there.
Ella sets out to help in whatever ways she can – bringing food to begin with – but the stakes for them both get much higher as the war progresses and the level of danger increases.
The author set the story in Krakow, though it was the sewers in the Polish city of Lvov in which Jewish people actually lived and survived the war. It’s almost beyond belief that anyone could survive a day or a week in such an unhealthy and putrid environment. Then again, much of what happened in European cities, towns, and Nazi concentration camps during WWII is beyond belief.
I found that I didn’t warm to the characters in The Woman With the Blue Star as much as I might have wished; however the novel’s drama swept me along with it and I am always fascinated by stories that reveal things about this period of history.
The Woman With the Blue Star is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
An absolute delight: ‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell
It was fitting that my final book review in 2020 is for a book whose publication I’ve anticipated for over a year, since I heard Kate Forsyth speak about her 4x Great-Grandmother Charlotte at a women’s literary festival in 2019. A little later, I was lucky enough to see a copy of Charlotte’s book at a Rare Book Week event at the State Library of NSW.
I was so keen I pre-ordered a copy and it was sitting on my shelf for a bit, while I got through some other books on my to-be-read pile.
The story of Charlotte Waring Atkinson had attracted me for several reasons. Firstly, there was a literary mystery: who was the author of the very first children’s book published in Australia? – until 1981 when Charlotte was identified as the author.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to me personally, I related to the story of this woman who arrived in New South Wales in the 1820’s, and to the search by the authors (sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell) for information about her origins and her life.
Her arrival in Australia occurred at around the same time as that of several of my ancestors, some of whom I have been researching and writing about. Charlotte’s first husband originally hailed from the English county of Kent, from where my great-grandfather (many times over) originated.
Later in life, Charlotte and her daughter lived for a time at Kurrajong, very close to where I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Bilpin, just a few kilometres along the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains.
Also, Charlotte lived so many of the experiences of women in the nineteenth century: an extraordinary and dangerous journey across the seas to an unknown land; pregnancy and childbirth at a time when both of these meant death for so many women; violence at the hands of men; great love and happiness, at least for a time; love for and dedication to her children; horrifying inequities under the law including in financial and family matters.
In tracing Charlotte’s story, the authors bring to life these aspects of women’s lives – some of which have, thankfully, changed; while others appear remarkably similar today.
This book is more than a biography of an accomplished colonial writer, artist, naturalist. It is also a memoir of the authors’ own journeys of discovery – about themselves, their families, their connections to the past. Here is a beautiful quote which perfectly expresses how I feel about the links between the past and present:
On her wrist, my mother wears the charm bracelet that has been handed down to the women of my family for six generations. The golden links of its chain, hung with tiny tinkling charms, seems to me like a metaphor for the miraculous spiral of our DNA, the coiling ladder that connects us all, both to our far-distant ancestors and to our unborn descendants.Searching for Charlotte p274
I appreciated that the authors did not shrink from acknowledging some of the more difficult aspects of their ancestors’ lives, including the fact that by settling on NSW land, they participated in the dispossession of the First Nations peoples who lived there. I, too, have to accept that about my own ancestors, many of whom were recipients of ‘land grants’ made to them by a colonial system that had no right to do so.
Charlotte Waring Atkinson was an extraordinary woman, although she was probably not regarded as such by her contemporaries. And here again I resonate with her story, because my exploration of my forebears comes from the impulse to uncover the extraordinary aspects of ordinary lives:
Charlotte Waring Atkinson was just an ordinary woman. She loved a man and gave birth to children, then tried her best to raise them and care for them, even though she was ground down by grief and harmed in both body and spirit by cruelty and violence. She fought for her children, she found her voice, and she stood up and spoke out at a time when many women were kept mute.Searching for Charlotte p275
This is a delightful book, proof indeed that the descendents of one of Australia’s first female authors have ‘writing in their blood.’ If you are interested in colonial Australian history, women’s history, literary, legal, scientific and educational history….get your hands on a copy! I promise you will not be disappointed.
Searching for Charlotte was published by NLA Publishing in 2020
Historic mystery plus romance: ‘The Last Truehart’ by Darry Fraser
The novel’s prologue sets the scene for it’s storyline and the mystery at it’s heart: Alice, a young woman pregnant to her fiance, is left at a Victorian port town when he boards the Shenandoah. This is an American Confederate ship which actively pursues ‘Yankee’ ships in the Pacific during the American civil war.
She never sees him again.
Decades later, her daughter, Stella, is finally free of an abusive marriage when her criminal husband dies in violent circumstances. Her beloved grandparents, along with her mother, have all died and Stella is completely alone in the world.
A private investigator, Bendigo Bartlett, is engaged by a client called Mrs Parks, to find Stella.
The novel is full of mysteries: what happened to Stella’s father? Who has employed Bendigo to find her, and why? Who is the disreputable man who threatens them all?
There is romance, but I would describe this novel more as an historic crime or mystery story. Set in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Sydney in the late 19th century, it gives a vivid portrayal of the two colonies during this time.
I enjoy novels where the major events and preoccupations of the period are woven into the storyline. In The Last Truehart, this includes debate about proposals for Australian Federation, still several years off; the divisions between what were then separate colonies; women’s suffrage; gendered roles in society and the workplace; attitudes towards divorce; the drought and economic downturn being experienced as the century came to a close. This is where fiction can bring historic events alive and make them real, showing their impact on everyday lives at the time.
The romance is lightly handled and the characters are well drawn.
The Last Truehart will appeal to readers who enjoy a well-crafted story with an engrossing mystery at its heart.
The Last Truehart is published by Mira (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) in December 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
New historical fiction from Jackie French: ‘The Angel of Waterloo’
The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.
The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.
Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.
I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.
I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.
As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.
As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:
‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’The Angel of Waterloo p 212
So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.
At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:
‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’The Angel of Waterloo p327
She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’
This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.
I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.
The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.
The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Familiar places through the lens of the past: ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’ by Tea Cooper
Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.
The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.
Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.
Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.
Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)
I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.
For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.
I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.
The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Resilience and friendship: ‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor
This novel introduced me to a previously unknown story of WWII : the experience of teachers and pupils at a Protestant boarding school in northern China while under Japanese control. The students, children of missionaries, business people or diplomats from around the world, received a traditional British-style education including the classics, religious instruction and preparation for English university study.
After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, school life continued largely as before for a time, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. Overnight, citizens of the US and the British Empire became enemy aliens and everything changed at Chefoo School. They were, suddenly, prisoners of war. They were moved twice; firstly to another location in the town and later to Weihsien Internment Camp, where they were kept captive for two years until liberation by US soldiers in 1945.
The author heard about these events and knew this was a story she wanted to write. The novel’s characters are her own creations but she researched accounts of internment and pored over the archives from Chefoo School, to write an authentic and moving account of people living through great hardship and fearful times with humour, compassion and resilience.
The story centres around a teacher, Elspeth Kent, and three pupils who are young girls at the novel’s opening but teenagers by the time of liberation. Nancy, known as ‘Plum’ to her friends, is the child of missionaries and, even before her capture by the Japanese, had not seen her parents for three years. For someone like me, not familiar with the boarding school system, that seems an incredible time for a child to be without her parents. Nancy and her friends endure an additional four years under the most testing of circumstances.
What holds the children and teachers together are their friendships and the teachers’ steadfast adherence to maintaining a sense of safety and unity, and what we might think of as a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Or, as Miss Kent puts it,
I closed my eyes and absorbed the simple familiarity of the moment: chalk dust on my fingertips, the pool of winter sunlight against my cheek, the sounds of singing and instruction drifting along the corridors. Routine and discipline. The glue holding me together while the world was falling apart.The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p25
Told through alternating viewpoints of Miss Kent and young Nancy, we see the circumstances under which the school community must survive deteriorate rapidly; the brutality of some of the Japanese guards; the tragic experiences of the local Chinese communities.
There are two potent themes throughout: sunflower seeds and the Girl Guides. The seeds are given to Miss Kent by the school’s Chinese gardener just before they are moved from the campus. She plants a seed at various locations throughout the story, one in each place they are interned and in remembrance of specific people.
She resolutely keeps the rituals of the Guides alive for the girls in her charge, as a way of holding onto meaningful traditions for her pupils, and to follow the teachings of the Guides about honourable and right behaviour and deeds, despite the suffering and cruelty around them.
One interesting character who really was at Weihsien Internment Camp is Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic athlete on whom the film Chariots of Fire was based. He was held captive at the camp and sadly died there before the prisoners were liberated. There is a memorial at the location where he was buried.
Both Miss Kent and Nancy come to realise that freedom can be taken away from without but not from within. Nancy’s version of this understanding is this:
For the first time since we’d been under Japanese guard, I understood that freedom wasn’t something I had to wait for, but was something I could choose. In my mind, in my imagination and my memories, I could be as free as the birds that raced the wind, as free as the clouds that chased the sun far above me.The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p277
The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is a beautifully told story of loss and courage, the strength of the human spirit, and the bonds of friendship.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Historical fiction in a vivid setting: ‘The Sea Gate’ by Jane Johnson
The Sea Gate is a dual-timeline story: the historic storyline is about wartime Cornwall and 16 year old Olivia, and the modern day one involves Rebecca, the adult daughter of Olivia’s cousin. I enjoy novels that bring together past and present in this way and this one is no exception.
I especially loved the setting of this book, having travelled to Cornwall and been enchanted by its dramatic rock-strewn coastlines, picturesque fishing villages and brooding moors. They provide a wonderful backdrop for a tale with plenty of family secrets; an old rambling house full of mysteries; intrigue and danger; past wrongs and a dash of romance.
Becky sets herself the task of restoring Olivia’s neglected family home to some semblance of habitability, so that her elderly cousin can come home from hospital. In the process she finds herself piecing together the secrets of Olivia’s past, especially events that took place during the war.
She also re-examines her own life and makes some surprising decisions about her future; she is a cancer survivor, still recovering from surgery and treatment and the shock of her illness:
Fear has trapped me, rendered me immobile and powerless: fear of losing Eddie, fear of the cancer, fear of everything, really. I’d forgotten I ever had wings, let alone how to use them.The Sea Gate p304
This was for me the most satisfying part of the novel: the emotional development of Rebecca’s character and her trajectory of self-discovery and change.
The one part that didn’t work so well for me was the chapter in which Hamid tells his story. An important secondary character, his story is a good one, so it is perhaps simply personal taste that meant I didn’t enjoy his first-person narrative inserted into the the story in this way. It did not, however, detract from my overall enthusiasm for The Sea Gate.
It’s an engrossing read, recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, dual timeline stories and an evocative, dramatic setting.
The Sea Gate was published by Head of Zeus Publishing in June 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
A celebration of us all: two delightful new picture books
I adore picture books. I loved to read them aloud to my son and continue to do so with my grandkids. There is a special magic that happens when the text and pictures work together; sometimes quirky, sometimes joyful, occasionally wistful. Always beautiful. And we are so fortunate to have in Australia such talented authors and illustrators of children’s books.
Margaret Wild was a favourite read-aloud for me, with books such as Mr Nick’s Knitting and Going Home. So I was pleased to see a new offering from her, with illustrations by Judith Rossell. Pink! is all about a young dinosaur who loves being pink – until she realises that she is always the first to be found in games of hide-and-seek with the other little dinosaurs. Then she longs to be brown or green, so she can hide in the forest like her friends.
Mum suggests: ‘Perhaps try being brave and smart about this…Try being happy with who you are.’ One afternoon Pink discovers that being a little bit brave – and a little bit different – can be a big advantage.
Margaret Wild’s simple text allows plenty of space – visually and metaphorically – for Judith Rossell’s gorgeous illustrations, full of the lush greens of the forest, soft blues and greys of the sky, pops of yellow, and of course, pink.
Pink! is a delightful story with a positive message that will appeal to youngsters as a read-aloud or to very early readers – especially those who love dinosaurs (and which pre-school or kindy kids don’t?)
What do you call your grandpa? by Ashleigh Barton is an affectionate love letter celebrating grandfathers and the special relationship between grandpa and child that can be found the world over. It also introduces youngsters to different cultures and languages and the various ways that children enjoy time with their grandads.
Each double page spread features a child, their grandfather and a special thing they love to do together. The four lines gently rhyme and this assists in the pronunciation of each name for ‘grandpa’, as that is always the final word and rhymes with the last word of the line before it.
We see children and grandpas playing hide-and-seek, star gazing, splashing in rain puddles, racing boats on a stream and enjoying a bedtime story together, among other fun activities.
The illustrations by Martina Heiduczek are soft blends of colours, with plenty of movement and things to spot and name on each page. On the last page, is an opportunity to learn the language and culture in which the different names for ‘grandpa’ are found.
What do you call your grandpa? and Pink! are delightful celebrations of diversity, special relationships, and the things that bring us together.
They will be published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in July 2020.
Thanks to the publisher for copies of these titles to read and review.