Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.
Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.
Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.
We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.
Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:
A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229
Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?
Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.
Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Did you know that Australian expressions such as yarn, snitch, swag or cove originated from Flash cant, the jargon and coded language spoken by criminals in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and transported along with convicts to the Australian colonies? And that the very first dictionary written in Australia was written by a convict in an effort to curry favour with authorities – a vocabulary of the Flash language written by an Englishman by the name of James Hardy Vaux.
Kel Richards’ biography of Vaux is based in part on the convict’s own memoirs, though as Richards points out, Vaux’s account of his actions needs to be treated with caution. He was a nineteenth century version of Peter Foster, an complete fraudster and convincing con-man, who skipped his way through English and Australian society with a fast and slick turn of the tongue and an apparent inability to stick at an honest job for more than a few weeks.
Born into a respectable middle class family, Vaux declined opportunities available to him that were not offered to people from less comfortable beginnings, preferring instead to swindle, rob, steal, pickpocket and scam his way to an income. He seems to have been a clever man with very little judgement and a breathtaking level of recklessness, and it must be said, very good luck that frequently enabled him to avoid capture or, when he was arrested, got him acquitted on some legal technicality or other.
I thoroughly disapproved of his criminal activities but I admit to being amused that the methods Vaux employed to hoodwink people in authority (employers, magistrates, etc) were the very aspects of ‘respectable society’ so sacred to those authorities: letters of recommendation from one acquaintance to another, for example; or the ability to present himself well and speak in a cultured and respectful manner. It was also ironic that at times, he got taken in by the very same sorts of scams he himself loved to perform on others.
Good luck eventually runs out and so Vaux was finally found guilty of one of his many crimes and transported to NSW on a convict ship. Here his education again served him well; being one of a small group of convicts who could read and write enabled him to wheedle his way into easier jobs such as clerical or transcription work – much preferable to assignment as a farm labourer or on the iron gangs, especially for someone who seemed to have an allergic reaction to anything looking like physical work.
I was astonished that he served not one, but two sentences of transportation – after arriving back in England after his first sentence expired, (in itself an unusual achievement) he returned straight away to his life of crime, resulting in a second period of transportation to the colony. This was clearly a man who did not learn from past mistakes!
His example also serves to show that the horrific sentencing laws of Georgian and Victorian England were no deterrent to crime: people either stole because of extreme poverty and desperation, or because they preferred it to legal employment. Either way, the threat of a death sentence or of transportation to the far side of the world, did not stop the rising tide of crime in England.
It was on his second stint in Australia that Vaux began work on his dictionary of Flash slang. Serving time in the convict settlement of Newcastle (reserved for re-offenders like Vaux) he recorded the huge array of words and expressions used by criminals, that so bewildered and frustrated magistrates and colonial authorities. Vaux planned to present his helpful guide to the Commandant of the Newcastle convict station. It was eventually published in London in 1819.
Richards has included the dictionary as an appendix in his account of it’s author’s life, and it makes for terrific reading. There are many words recognisable today; though some have expanded or changed in meaning or use, many are used exactly as they were in Vaux’s world. If, for example, I said ‘He looks like he’s about to croak’, I suspect you’d know what I meant. ‘Can I cadge $10 from you?’ means just the same as it did in 1800, except with different currency.
There are some expressions that have faded into the past and are as inexplicable to me as they must have been to a magistrate in Vaux’s time. What, for example, would ‘I’ll get the vardo and you can tow the titter out so she can be unthimbled’ mean?
Some of the entries are hilarious, some quite grim, but they all give the feeling of the world in which they were created and used. It was a hard, unforgiving time for many and their language is imbued with sly humour and an anti-authoritarian slant that arguably still underpins aspects of modern day Australian culture.
Flash Jim is a romp through the world of nineteenth century crime, criminals and their culture. Readers who enjoy language and it’s origins, and history brought to life, will find it an engrossing read.
Flash Jim is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
I was born and grew up in the Hawkesbury region and returned to live there and in the nearby Blue Mountains in my thirties. I have at least four ancestors who arrived in the Hawkesbury and Nepean region after serving their sentences, to take up land as settlers. Despite this, and despite attending high school in Richmond, not far from the river itself, I had learnt little of the early history of the region – which is rather sad, when you consider that it was an area rich in stories of the people who lived here before and after British colonisation.
In People of the River, historian and author Grace Karskens brings those stories to life, digging down into layers of history, back to what she calls ‘deep time’, tracing the ways in which the First People of the river and its surrounds lived before the English arrived, and the subsequent interactions between and among Aboriginal and settler communities.
This is no lightweight or dry history text. It’s an incredibly comprehensive account, though the impeccable research is always conveyed with a deft touch. The book includes chapters about the Hawkesbury-Nepean’s ancient geology, geography, earliest human habitation, the cultural and spiritual lives of its people (both Dharug and settler), the economic, political and social contexts of the colonial era, as well as the tragedies endured by the First Peoples, such as disease, family and community dislocation, child stealing, and violence.
However, we also learn of the many ways in which the First Nations communities adapted to and survived British colonisation and the many, sometimes surprising, ways in which they interacted with settlers. Referring to artefacts discovered, some held in museum collections, she writes:
These are the poignant ‘small things forgotten’, the scattered, silent, yet insistent record of a vast and extraordinary human experience: the enforced creation of new worlds and lives, woven from the old. Despite the terror and violence, the determined campaigns, the loss of so many of their kin, the disruption to their food sources and their social and sacred places, the people of Dyarubbin survived, and remained in their Country.People of the River p175
Ms Karskens is a gifted writer and her histories are engaging, lyrical and deeply moving – if you have read her earlier work, The Colony, about the history of the Sydney region, I am sure you will agree.
Along with her research for this book, the author has also been involved in a project with Dharug knowledge holders and fellow historians, that aims at re-discovering and reinstating the Dharug place names of the region. I am so glad to learn that the town I lived in for ten years, Richmond, has a much older name: Marrengorra.
I struggle to keep this post about People of the River brief – there is so much to enthuse about and so many amazing stories here. If you, like me, enjoy learning more about the real history of our country, this is a must-read. I lingered over it for several months – it’s a hefty book at 525 pages (not including appendices) but such a joy. I finished it with a satisfying sense that I now have a better understanding of the corner of Australia that has been so personally meaningful to me.
People of the River was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.
The new book by prolific non fiction author Simon Winchester takes a sweeping look at the topic of land in a broad sense. Subtitled How the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world, the book’s opening introduces the author’s personal take on his ownership of a piece of land in northeastern USA, and in the process introduces the sorry history of the dispossession of the First Nations people in that corner of America.
Coming back to fundamentals, the author then tells the story of how the Earth was first measured; a tale of mathematics and precise instruments put to the task in the nineteenth century.
Then came the astonishing proposal to create a common map of the world – ‘a common map for a common humanity’ – put forward by Professor Albrecht Penck, an Austrian geographer. It was not surprising to learn that this project, embarked upon with such lofty idealism, was a fraught endeavour that eventually foundered on the rocks of divisions, rancour, rivalry and ineptitude after nearly a century of effort.
Winchester examines what makes borders; how human-created borders have resulted in absurdities and bloodshed; how in more recent times and with huge effort, the Dutch created land to live on and farm from the North Sea; the link between land and national identity and ways of doing things.
He returns to America to recount the brutal disgrace of settler land grabs and broken treaties in the westward movement of the nineteenth century; then explains the legacies of enclosure laws and clearances in England and Scotland; the effects of colonialism in various parts of the world including Australia, New Zealand, the African continent, India and Pakistan and the Middle East.
The book is full of startling snippets of information like this:
A quarter of the world’s population lives on land in which, though individual citizens may not know it, they exist in a notionally feudal relationship with the British Crown.Land p195
That quote alone should fire up the passions of supporters of the idea of Australia becoming a republic!
Almost every part of the world is included in the embrace of this book: from the Ukraine (Stalin’s disastrous and murderous ‘collectivisation’ of farms in the 1930’s), to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; the contradictions and confusions of the Treaty of Waitangi, struck with New Zealand’s Maoris; and the destruction caused by industrialisation and exploitation of the Earth’s resources across the globe.
Winchester argues that the once firmly held belief that ‘land is the only thing that lasts’ is no longer true, due to rising sea levels and encroachment on low lying regions and islands. He offers examples of changing attitudes and methods of managing and conserving land, including from my own part of the world, Australia: widespread catastrophic bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 have led to a re-think of fire management and a growing respect for traditional ‘cool burning’ methods practised here for thousands of years by First Nations people.
Land is an engrossing and thought provoking read. Readers who enjoy learning about history, geography, maps, as well as the contradictions of human behaviour, will enjoy the mix of anecdote and analysis with which Winchester packs a lot of information into a very readable package.
Land is published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in January 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.