‘Becoming Mrs Mulberry’ by Jackie French
Jackie French writes marvelous commercial historical fiction, with protagonists who are active participants in their lives and the world around them. Her stories always feature intriguing snippets from history:
The incidents in my books are based on actual people, historical events and attitudes that are often not widely known. That is why I write about them…Sometimes fiction is a gentler way of presenting those harder times of history, as well as celebrating the good.Author’s note, Becoming Mrs Mulberry
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is an example of the many reasons why Ms French is an Australian best-selling author. She has a way of imparting historical information in a way that illuminates rather than bogs down the story.
It’s a big book, with several big themes: Australia’s mixed record on dealing with issues such as gender equality, treatment of people with disabilities, and the sad fate of so many soldiers returning from WWI. It is also a plea for us to become more attuned to our natural environment, which is under such severe threat today.
The main protagonist, Agnes, is in the midst of medical studies at Edinburgh University, when the war and its aftermath requires her to put her dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. She experiences eye-watering levels of abuse and discrimination both during her studies (much of it meted out by male fellow students) and after it. Any so-called ‘post feminists’ should read this book.
Despairing of her ability to make a difference for the endless line of soldiers with horrifying injuries that she nurses during the war in Europe, she is given a sage piece of advice by her Matron:
Just do the next right thing, and then the next. Put a thousand crumbs together and you make a cake.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp225-226
Straight after the war, her ‘next right thing’ sees her marrying the severely shell-shocked brother of her close friend, in order to rescue him from being declared mentally incompetent and being confined to an asylum. This is how she becomes the Mrs Mulberry of the novel’s title.
Her new husband is very wealthy and she uses this money to provide respite, care and refuge from some of society’s outcasts, suffering war injuries or disabilities from accidents or illnesses. Coincidentally, the place where she does this is on her husband’s Blue Mountains property, in a fictional location that the author placed not too far from my home.
Then she comes across a young child in a situation of terrible abuse and vulnerability – and her life develops an unexpected trajectory.
Through it all, there is a tender shoot of love and care which grows as the story progresses:
Her sense of loss seeped away under the hush of trees. Trees had patience and so must she, as their roots wound deep into the ground and their leaves slowly burgeoned to the sky. Here, on a highland ridge, she could see trees shaped by wind and snow, none of which was within their control, and yet they managed beauty nonetheless: even greater loveliness from fate’s twisting of their trunks and branches.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp124-125
This is a sweeping, heartfelt story that will appeal to readers who love their historical fiction to actually mean something.
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is published by HQ Fiction in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Jackie French magic: ‘Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom’ Book #2 in Girls Who Changed the World
Jackie French is back with another historical story mixed with a touch of speculative fiction: Book #2 in the ‘Girls Who Changed the World’ series for middle grade readers.
Book #1 introduced Ming Qong, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who wants more from her school history lessons than the stories of men who won wars or invented things. Where were all the girls and women? Didn’t they do important things too, things that changed the world? Why aren’t their stories told?
In Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom, Ming is thrown back to the time of World War I, to Belgium in 1916. This time, her brother Tuan is with her.
They meet Marie, a youngster like them. Marie’s parents were killed, and her village and home destroyed by the German army, early in the war. Gradually Ming realises that Marie is working with the resistance group called ‘La Dame Blanche’ (The White Lady.) These women, men, girls and boys work locally, observing German troop movements, counting ammunition deliveries at the local railway station, passing food and supplies to those in need, hiding Belgians or Allied soldiers wanted by the Germans. They work in great secrecy: Ming and Tuan learn to guard what they say.
Ming even learns to knit in order to create coded messages in a scarf or quilt square that communicates important information via signals in the number or type of stitches: movements of troop trains, numbers of soldiers, trains carrying ordnance, dates and times. This was a technique actually used in Belgium by women during the war – one thing you can always count on in a Jackie French novel is the accuracy of historical details she includes.
The other type of work Ming experiences is foraging for firewood and food to feed and warm the orphans cared for in an unofficial ‘home’ by local women. Keeping civilians alive during wartime is also a form of resistance, usually performed by women and girls.
The clue to how Ming’s presence helps to change the trajectory of the war is revealed at the end. But the underlying message is threaded right throughout the story: the often overlooked and hidden role that women have always played in world history.
World War I was – big. A million stories or a million million, the story of every person who was there, or was affected by it across the world, for generations after it happened. Women’s stories had been lost in its vastness…Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272
‘Hundreds of thousands of women, possibly millions, all through that war,’ said Herstory quietly. ‘The women of World War I are remembered as nurses or mothers, sisters, wives or sweethearts waiting for the men they loved, not as resistance workers, intelligence agents, soldiers and others who fought too. So much work, and sacrifice and courage, all deleted. Tell their stories, because even now the world seems intent on forgetting.’
There are some difficult scenes, including an explosion of a trainload of mustard gas, the diabolical new German weapon to be unleashed at the front. Readers are not spared the suffering of those in the path of war.
Importantly, there is also hope for the future, and an emphasis that it can be small actions by unseen or overlooked people, that can result in big changes to make the world a better place.
Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.
Duty and trauma: ‘The Nurses’ War’ by Victoria Purman
Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.
The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.
The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.
If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.
The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.
Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.The Nurse’s War p79
The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.
Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.
Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.
This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.
At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?
Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.
The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
A microcosm of a world in turmoil: ‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue
What a marvel of a novel this is. Emma Donoghue has written a story that explores profound human issues – hope, survival, struggle – within the minutiae of three days in a tiny hospital ward, allowing glimpses of the social, religious, political and health influences swirling around the small cast of characters. I can absolutely see this story brought to life as a stage play or movie.
The timing of The Pull of the Stars is uncanny. Published in mid 2020 during a world pandemic, it is set during another pandemic, the global influenza outbreak a century ago. Reading it now, as we struggle with Covid-19, I was struck by so many similarities between then and now.
The story takes place over three days, in a short-staffed Dublin hospital. Julia is a nurse, working long days in the maternity/fever ward, where there are three patients about to give birth who are also suffering from influenza.
The author pays tribute to the struggles of people from all levels of Irish society at the time. The poverty, religious conservatism and bigotry of early nineteenth century Ireland imposed added burdens for many, but middle class women were not immune to influenza or its effects on pregnant women, which could have dire consequences for mothers and babies.
If you are squeamish about the icky parts of the body’s functioning during childbirth or illness, you might find some scenes in this book challenging. Personally, I loved the way the author honoured the crucial role of nurses during what are profound and dramatic moments: the work and risk of bringing new life into the world, and the struggle against an illness that could strike from nowhere and kill in a matter of days, even hours. The research that went into the book was evidently deep but sits lightly in the narrative.
The characters – nurse Julia; young, poor Bridie, a volunteer helper in Julia’s ward; and the three sick, labouring women they care for – form the nucleus of the story, though the other characters are well drawn and entirely believable. We meet Dr Kathleen Lynn, rumoured to be a Rebel on the run from police, but whose calm and compassionate approach prompts Julia to question her own assumptions and beliefs. Dr Lynn is based on a real figure, a Sinn Féin rebel who later established a hospital for impoverished mothers and babies.
The intense work of the hospital is set against the background of an Ireland at war: internally in the aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion, and externally as the Great War is still being waged throughout Europe. As Julia realises:
It occurred to me that in the case of this flu, there could be no signing a pact with it. What we waged in hospitals was a war of attrition, a battle over each and every body.The Pull of the Stars.
One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was that the business of childbirth – those giving birth and those helping labouring women – was front and centre, much as in another book I have reviewed this year, The German Midwife. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both novels juxtapose the battles of women in the process of giving life, against the battles of war, which are all about taking it.
There is so much to love about The Pull of the Stars. I listened to the Audible audiobook version, where the narration by Emma Lowe added another layer of enjoyment. It’s a wonderful book with timeless themes and compelling characters.
The Pull of the Stars was published by Allen & Unwin Australia in July 2020.