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Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms

This is the perfect spring book. I hadn’t heard of Dr Anita Heiss or her books before I saw she was coming to speak at Muse. I’ve been really enjoying their author discussions that I’ve been going along to this year and I’m always looking to try new, local writers. However, although I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more diversely this year, I’m very ashamed to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever read any books by Aboriginal authors. Heiss was a very engaging speaker, and talked a lot about the research that went into her latest book and the importance of getting diverse books, authors and stories into the mainstream. She also very kindly signed a copy of her book for me at the end, which has a classic Aussie landscape on the front decorated with shiny gold lettering and beautiful blossoms.

“Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” by Anita Heiss is a historical novel set in Cowra, NSW during World War II. A large number of Japanese soldiers are being kept prisoner at a POW camp, and one night they all manage to break out. With some soldiers killed, some recaptured and some who committed suicide, Heiss’ novel explores the idea of what could have happened if one soldier, Hiroshi, managed to seek refuge at the nearby Aboriginal mission called Erambie Station. Banjo Williams discovers Hiroshi under his family’s hut and decides to help him, enlisting his eldest daughter Mary to sneak Hiroshi food. Part romance, part spotlight on the discrimination experienced by Aboriginal people subject to the oppressive Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), this book  uncovers a piece of Australia’s history that is not often discussed.

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This is an important book. As my lamentable reading record shows, Aboriginal stories are not told nearly as often as they should be in Australia. While Aboriginal film and television has been slowly gaining traction over the years, Aboriginal writing is still very much behind where it should be. Heiss’ story cleverly uses the perspective of an outsider, Japanese man Hiroshi, as a critical lens through which the reader can look at the past (and present) treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. By drawing comparisons between the Aboriginal mission, the Japanese POW camp and the Italian POW camp it swiftly becomes clear how much of a factor race was in how well people were treated in 1940s Australia. This book is set in a time before Aboriginal people were allowed to vote and when Aboriginal identity was mutually exclusive to civil rights. Heiss’ novel is very well-researched and draws on academic, community and family resources to paint a vivid picture of 1940s country Australia and how different kinds of people lived there. Heiss has an open, honest style which makes this book accessible to all readers.

Whether you’re a history buff, a romance fan, a lover of Australiana or interested in books about war, I think most people will get something out of this book.

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