April is a big month for history or to be specific, the history of war. In two days we commemorate Anzac Day. History is at the core of this day of remembrance. For this reason I thought it would be appropriate to focus on war history in this monthly roundup for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.
When many people think of war history they think of the shelves in bookshops laden with histories of this battle or that General or some iconic war hero. Books that are only touched by a certain group of readers – men. In a bizarre way war history can be seen to be as gendered as romance; war history for men, romance for women.
This is certainly the way I thought until I attended one of the sessions on war history at the Australian Historical Association Conference last year. To my surprise I found that most of the audience were women. And women were not just consumers of this history. Most of the papers presented on World War I were by women. Ironically I had not considered myself to be a reader of war histories even though I had been doing so for some time!
I commented on twitter, “… interest in history of war does not mean the person is a war mongerer”. Is that the subconscious assumption that many have about readers and authors of war histories? I also reflected, “there are many ways of understanding war which makes it a topic of such variety that is relevant and interesting for all”. War history is a much broader genre than the military histories displayed so prominently in bookshops.
We now have thirty-four books in our list of war histories written by Australian Women Writers and I am sure there are more. It reflects the wide range of themes and topics that are embraced by war history. Naturally there are books on the list about the fighting itself and the politics behind it. There are also books about nursing, espionage, prisoners of war and the home front.
Over the last month some of these books have been reviewed for the Challenge. Jennifer Cameron-Smith reviewed Pattie Wright’s biography Ray Parkin’s Odyssey. Ray Parkin was serving on the HMAS Perth when it was sunk off Java during World War II. He then became a prisoner of war working on the Thai-Burma Railway with fellow prisoners Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop and Colonel Laurens van der Post. Jennifer had read another book about the sinking of the HMAS Perth and was clearly looking forward to reading Wright’s biography, “[w]hen I heard that this biography had been released, I added it to the top of my reading list” she remarked in her review. The book met her high expectations, “I found this book difficult to put down” she reported.
Jenny Schwartz read On the Homefront: Western Australia During World War II, a history commissioned by the West Australian government to recognise the effect of the War on Western Australians who remained at home. It is a collection of essays written by a number of historians. “I found the book interesting because I could picture many of the places mentioned and also because my family lived some of the experiences described in the articles”, observed Jenny. “The broad range of topics covered in the various authors’ articles gives a sense of the all-encompassing effect of the war” she said, yet Jenny found this breadth was a disadvantage. “It was just too big and too varied to create an emotional connection with its reader.”
I reviewed Rosalie Triolo’s account of the role of the Education Department of Victoria during World War I, ‘Our Schools and the War’ . Triolo’s history is about the role of community during a war. The Victorian Education Department urged every student, teacher and Department official to devote themselves to the war effort. This extensive book includes the work of children in fundraising and making ‘comforts’ for the soldiers at war as well as the experiences of the teachers both female and male at home as well as on the battle field. This book is well researched and will be a good resource for historians but like Jenny I expected to be more emotionally involved while reading the book.
Next year marks the centenary of the beginning of World War I so we are bound to hear much about the history of this war in the future. If you know of any other war histories written by women please let me know so that I can add them to our list.
As always reviewers for the challenge reviewed a broad range of histories, biographies and memoirs over the last month. Indigenous issues were covered in five books reviewed and memoirs continue to be the most popular form of book in this category.
Two books about Australian Women Writers caught my eye. Giulia Giuffré interviewed a number of prominent Australian female authors during the nineteen eighties and included them in A Writing Life published in 1990. Clearly Tarla Kramer enjoyed the book. “What I would like to see is the book reprinted, this time including the interviewees that couldn’t fit in the first edition. And then perhaps another volume with the next generation…”
Sue, on her Whispering Gums blog, reviewed the biography, Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John by Helen Trinca. Sue describes the Madeleine St John portrayed in Trinca’s biography as “high maintenance” being prone to destroying friendships and never reconciling with her family after a very difficult childhood. “Trinca handles this minefield with a clear, even-handed but sensitive eye, enabling us to feel Madeleine’s pain while being frustrated at her inability to lift herself out of it” comments Sue.
The final review that I would like to share with you is of Ramona Koval’s By the Book: A Reader’s guide to Life. Reviewer, Michael Kitto, describes this as “a memoir of the author’s reading journal”, easy to read and entertaining. “… I find people’s reading histories really interesting” he says. They “give me a little confidence in my own journey”.
As always there were many other interesting reviews of histories, biographies and memoirs written over the last month. You can browse the list here.
I’m Yvonne Perkins. For the last few years I have been working as a research assistant on a variety of historical projects one of which was an investigation of the history of teaching reading in Australia. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I. In my spare time I enjoy reading history and writing about it on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past. I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.
Lovely post … And thanks for the link. I don’t read much in the way of war history mainly because they haven’t come to the fore, but I do like reading fiction set in war-time. It’s such fertile ground for the best and worst in people, isn’t it.
That is exactly why war is a fertile topic for writers, both fiction and nonfiction. It is also a very difficult theme to manage. It can so easily lurch into depicting people as monsters or angels. I want to see a person’s humanity revealed in a book about war, an appreciation of the moral tightrope on which they walk, their frailties as well as their strength of character. I also like writers to give a nuanced consideration of ‘the enemy’ and include them in all their complexity in the story.
Yes, welll said … Can’t add to that!
Thank you for the interesting post. If anyone wants romantic fiction set in WW1 and around that time, how about Australian author Margaret Tanner’s books?
I like that, romantic war fiction 🙂 I wonder if that would be a way to market romance to men say I with tongue in cheek. I have no background in romance books, but I wonder if their are other romantic war fiction books written by Australians, whether female or male.
Thanks for this interesting post and thanks to Diana for the suggestion to read Margaret Tanner. I am off to the library now to pick up Scapegoat by Carol Birch and shall also look for Margaret Tanner.
Sorry – the title of Carol Birch’s book is Scapegallows not scapegoat.
In reading books for Global Women of Color, I have read several novels about women and families during wartime and found them especially moving. For example, A Golden Age: A Novel, by Tahmima Anam. They aren’t romances; at least that is not the only plot. They made me realize just how privileged I am not to ever had to live in a place being devastated by war.