Thursday, 25 September 2008

A Rose for the Anzac Boys Jackie French

A Rose for the Anzac Boys Jackie French, Angus Robertson [HarperCollins NZ], 2008, 291 pages, paperback, NZ$ 16.99

She’d be doing something. Something grander and braver than studying irregular verbs. Something for King and country!”

Jackie French is one of Australia’s most inventive writers. Yet she has made it clear that she has not invented any part of A Rose for the Anzac Boys, her account of the “forgotten army” of women in World War 1. She has read widely in personal accounts of the period and can argue that while her characters are fictional, their experiences are real.

Margery ‘Midge’ Macpherson, orphaned daughter of a Canterbury run-holder, and two of her friends from an English finishing school, volunteer to set up a station canteen in France. While Ethel learns graphic details about wartime conditions and the fighting from family letters and the soldiers she serves with hot cocoa, there is also the grim message of the six hospital trains that thunder past every day. “Each carried four hundred sick and wounded men.” When their station becomes an ambulance depot, they are regularly faced with a mass of bodies on stretchers: “a world of horror populated by wounded men, dying men, men who staggered blindly, men who wept.”

As the war drags on Midge has even more bitter experiences with ambulance driving and helping in a casualty clearing station. Like those around her, she suffers terrible personal loss but interestingly Midge’s story continues into the 1920s and the problems of readjusting to the peacetime world.

A Rose for the Anzac Boys shows the role of the thousands of women who took part in the war effort and the price they paid. With its historical notes, glossary and southern hemisphere viewpoint, A Rose for the Anzac Boys is a moving and helpful introduction to an important section of human history.

This review first appeared in The Press, Christchurch New Zealand on 23rd August 2008.

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