17 September, 2009

Book 24 - A Rose for the Anzac Boys, or: "There's nothing worse than ill-fitting socks!"

A Rose for the Anzac Boys (2008)

Author: Jackie French

Why this book?
Because when I was at school we learned about the battle at Gallipoli every Anzac Day, every year, and that is pretty much the extent of my knowledge of WWI and thought I should correct that ASAP - through the power of fiction! Also, I like Jackie French - she wrote one of my favourite fantasy books, Tajore Arkle, as the wonderful but sad Hitler's Daughter.

What's it all about anyway?
When the war starts, New Zealander Midge is a long way from home - in a boarding school in England, in fact, where she is learning frightfully important things like deportment and posture. Her twin brother, Tim, has lied about his age and joined up, and she's really proud of him - he's fighting for King and country, and besides, everyone knows the war won't take that long to win.

Then Midge gets a telegraph saying Tim is missing, and everything changes for her. She knows he can't really be dead - he must've been taken prisoner by the Turks - but suddenly, the war seems real. She doesn't want to just sit around knitting socks and putting together trifles to send to the soldier. That's when Ethel, daughter of a nouveau riche grocer, has an idea - why don't they start a canteen for the soliders? They won't be in any danger themselves, and with her father's help they can provide food and a hot drink for soldier leaving for and returning from the battlefield. Along with their friend the Honourable Anne, they set out for France.

Midge works harder than she has ever worked in her life; one night the girls and their helpers actually serve over ten thousand soldiers. She sees countless soldiers returning missing arms and legs, some shellshocked, others already dead. When a friendly ambulance driver is taken off the job due to septic wounds in her hands, Midge offers to take her place; and from there, somehow, she manages to meet her aunt - a nurse - and is pressed into duty in the big hospital tents where there are too many injured and not enough supplies, and where even the chaplain has been pressed into duty as a surgeon.

And through it all, two things keep her going: one, the drive to find her brother; and the other, the memory of the sheepfarm back home, the place she yearns to be more than anywhere. She meets a young Aussie soldier, a fellow sheepfarmer who knows exactly how she feels, and who gives her a rose on her birthday...

As destructive and terrifying as the war is, Midge revels in the freedom her work has given her. Can things really ever go back to how they were before the war?

The Good and the Bad
This book was kind of amazing. It's not at all subtle - Midge's naivety, the snobbery of the army officers, the pure idiocy of many of the armies' campaigns, they're all painted with a thick brush. But the boldness of French's writing makes this a very readable story - it unfolds quickly, and you can get a grasp on what's going on very quickly. The descriptions of the wounded are stomach-churning at times, but accurate - French based them on descriptions in real letters and diaries.

Midge is a great character. She's not out to change the world; at the very bottom she simply wants to help her own family, but in her love for them lies the strength to do a great many things that a great many people wouldn't. Anne and Ethel are both equally strong, and I was sad to see them drift out of the story as Midge's choices took her further away from them. Anne in particular interested me; the daughter of a Duke who clearly had no interest in being married off to the first suitable suitor who came along, but who didn't seem to have any great argument against it, either; who rebelled in quiet ways, like making friends with Ethel, even as she tried her best to get rid of her pimples to please her mother.

What I did feel weakened the story was framing it against the recent Iraq War. French's message seemed to be that ultimately, it's the soldiers who get screwed over, no matter what the circumstances, and that's true enough! But to me modern wars are a world away from those that happened almost a century ago. We no longer have the belief that this war will be the last; we've long since lost that innocence. Besides - it seemed a little odd having a whole book about women in wartime, the invisible heroes, and ending with a message about male soldiers. I don't know; it really just seemed to take something away from the book, to me. Or perhaps it was my own feelings on the Iraq War that just jolted me out of the story.

So should I read this book or what?
I'd definitely recommend it, although I was pretty much sold as soon as I knew it was about a New Zealand girl in WWI. I'd actually recommend anything by Jackie French though - she really is great!

Link of the day: I mean to pimp this earlier, but since it's still going - check out the Agatha Christie Blog Tour! Awesome.

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