Genre Spotlight: Historical fiction, Nation Building Australia and Belinda Murrell’s The Forgotten Pearl

Belinda Murrell, The Forgotten Pearl, Random House Publishers, June 2012.

RRP: $15.95 Australian.

Western culture makes much of World War Two and with good reason- its scale was horrific, drawing civilians into war on an unprecedented scale and killing millions. It saw two oppressive dictatorships engage in mass genocide. It changed the entire fabric of society and was perhaps the true beginning of the world as we know it today.

Books and films on World War Two are a dime a dozen. Most, however, deal with Nazi Germany and The Holocaust, or Russian Gulag’s and the paranoid oppression of Stalinist Russia. From The Diary of Anne Frank to The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pygamas to Sophie’s Choice and The English Patient, from The Bronze Horseman to The Book Thief, from the award winning Ian McEwan novel, Atonement to the fabulous ITV Foyle’s War penned by Anthony Horowitz, which manages to discuss both Germany and Russia all in one go- all share similar things in common; they are either written from a soldier or atrocity victim’s perspective or they are all about the European front (Foyle’s War does an amazing job of discussing the homefront for Britain).

Only recently have historians and other interested parties in the western world turned to look at the silences in World War Two’s history; the silences about the Asia Pacific front, about Japanese atrocities in countries such as China and Korea, silences about the homefront and the role of mourning, silences about gender and war, silences about women, silences about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This history ‘revitalised’ has come to be discussed more and more, particlarly as Asian culture has become so important to Australian heritage. Films such as the atrocious Pearl Harbour and the documentary style Tora! Tora! Tora! have been superseded in favour of Japanese anime tellings of war such as Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen, and non fiction books such as Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes; which all deal with Japanese civilian death thanks to allied bombing.

Australia’s role is often forgotten in all of these histories. It starts to feel like we did little in the war at all. That’s where Belinda Murrell’s The Forgotten Pearl is a welcome change from the usual war accounts; seeking as it does to teach about Australia’s role both at war and on the homefront. The Forgotten Pearl tells the story of Poppy, a young girl caught in the Japanese bombings of Darwin. Her life is soon torn apart by war, as friends, brothers and sisters all must go away to do their bit or to face the dreaded Japanese internment camp. Evacuated to Sydney, Poppy must find the courage  to grow up in a world turned upside down by terror, pain and death.

To review Murrell’s latest children’s historical fiction, I thought I’d do something a bit different, by asking Mother InkAshling to double review with me in a Margaret and David style dialogue.

InkAshling: What did you think of the story overall?

Mother InkAshling: I enjoyed it- once I realised the book I’d asked you to order me was aimed at primary school kids! I admit I spent the first few chapters wondering if the author thought I was an idiot till you pointed that out to me!

InkAshling: I’d say the target audience is those in Years 3-7,especially as many children would probably relate to the 2012 storyline of Chloe and her friendship woes as contrasted with her grandmother, Poppy’s, war experiences.

Mother InkAshling: Yes. I love that it is aimed for this age group. It didn’t involve drugs and sex and gratuitous violence, but it was still more challenging than most children’s books. It drove me mad when you were a kid, trying to find age appropriate books for a voracious reader like you. I would have been happy to discuss this book with you as a kid.

InkAshling: I really liked that the story (much like Lucy M Montgomery’s under acknowledged historical fiction, Rilla of Ingleside) dealt with women in war, and the experiances of the women who stayed behind. The protagonist of the story is a girl growing up, much like Rilla, and with Poppy, Murrell really helps to give voice to that silence about women’s role in grief and mourning and loss during wartime, which Australian historians like Pat Jalland, Bruce Scates and Joy Damousi are really starting to investigate.

Mother InkAshling: I would have liked to have learnt more about the experiences of Poppy and her sisters in war time actually. The book did delve deeply into the start of the war on the homefront for Australians but seemed very rushed at the end, just when you’d really invested yourself in the characters. For example, Poppy mentioned that she’d worked in a munitions factory but we never got to experience that with her.

InkAshling: I’d have to agree with you there. I felt like Pearl Harbour and Darwin was dealt with beautifully but Sydney flew by in a breeze and then the war was suddenly over.

Mother InkAshling: I guess it was a bit too neat wasn’t it? I don’t think Belinda explored how the family would have felt about their involvement in the war all that well either. They were a bit too Bohemian for that era without any of the fall out for that- both the Aboriginal servant’s story and the Japanese story, felt a bit politically correct. Surely Poppy’s family would have been seen as unusual for the time and faced some resentment for their beliefs. They would have tried to downplay them and anglacise as much as possible. Surely even Poppy would have felt confused about the Japanese in Australia after her brother was taken as a POW by the Japanese army.

InkAshling: And I guess Poppy didn’t react much to losing everything at once like she did. I found that a bit unusual- and the voices in the letters felt a bit strange too sometimes, didn’t they?

Mother InkAshlings: At times the letters, especially the ones written by Poppy, felt a bit too much like a history lesson, too statistically factual. They didn’t flow like a kid’s thoughts would flow to me. It threw me out of the narrative just when I was getting interested.

InkAshlings: Yes and as a history major, I found some of the ahistorical colloquialisms a bit annoying. Did anyone really say “hanging out” back then? Though remember, this is aimed at young kids, and that sort of language would be more identifiable for them. As a novel aimed at young Australians, and as a novel that fills in a massive historical gap in our nationhood story (it is only recently that the Asia Pacific front has even been examined seriously) it certainly succeeds in its goal.

Mother InkAshling: Yes- I learnt heaps about Australia’s part in the Asia Pacific front- my parents weren’t born in Australia and they experienced the European side of the war. I never learnt any of this in school either. I think as a piece of kid’s historical fiction, it is, nitpicking aside, a really good story. I think it would interest a kid enough that they would go out and read more of Belinda’s books.

InkAshling: Yes I agree. How many inky stars are you giving The Forgotten Pearl?

Mother InkAshling: 3.5/5 inky stars.

InkAshling: I’m giving it 3/5 inky stars- I feel that the history is interesting but maybe the main story could have been a bit more involving- as a kid who struggled to read anything that wasn’t fantasy, I don’t know that I would have loved this book. I would definitely have read the whole thing however!

Mother InkAshling: I’m sticking to 3.5! I think you would have loved it- you liked Anne of Green Gables didn’t you? I think this book is great. Come on, you weren’t as into fantasy back then. I remember!

InkAshling: Now we really are squabbling like we’re hosting At The Movies!

The Forgotten Pearl:

3/5 inky stars from InkAshling

3.5/5 inky stars from Mother InkAshling

If you liked this double review, and its different format, please let me know in a comment or at I am sure Mother InkAshling could be persuaded back!

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