This is one of those books that probably wouldn’t have crossed my path had I not participated in a reading challenge. Two challenges, actually: the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 and the World War I reading challenge hosted by War Through the Generations. I needed–and of course wanted—to read one more book for each category so looked around for a WWI themed book written by an Australian women writer. What what an unexpectedly brilliant read this was.
ANZAC is an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
A Rose for the ANZAC Boys is the story of Midge Macpherson, a teen from New Zealand stuck in a finishing school for young ladies in England during World War I. Her parents are both dead and her old brother has gone off to fight in the war. Her twin brother lied about his age to get accepted into the army. Midge feels like a useless burden that’s been sent off to be out of the way. She and her group of friends are chomping at the bit to help the war effort in a more direct, hands-on way. Using family resources and donations, they set up a canteen for injured soldiers in France. They work grueling hours with rarely a day off. Growing up on a huge sheep farm in New Zealand, Midge knows how to drive and for a while serves as an ambulance driver when one of the driver’s hands become so infected that she needs treatment. When that driver is ready to return, Midge then works as an aid in a field hospital where her aunt, a VAD nurse, is stationed. Midge sees the worst of what war does to men’s bodies and minds.
There is a love story component but it–refreshingly–takes a back seat to Midge’s work and person-hood. So often, at least in American YA novels (and I’m no expert), it seems like the romance gets the biggest focus and often at the expense of the girl’s self-identity (i.e., she has none without a boyfriend). Midge is not a caricature of a ball-buster, but she is someone who has a strong sense of self and takes charge of her own life, even in the end when she does come upon love.
Jackie French obviously did meticulous research for this novel and yet the story does not get bogged down with details. The research is smoothly incorporated into the storyline such as when that ambulance driver’s hands become so infected that she can no longer work and leaves for treatment. She later returns to her duty with hands that are healing but that will be permanently scarred. There are some chapters of factual notes at the end of the novel that explain in general terms the extent of the work women did during the Great War and that also expands on such details as infected and scarred hands. French writes, “Most women suffered severe infections, especially to their hands, from the suppurating wounds they tended, and in later years would recognize a fellow war volunteer by the scars on their hands, red and shiny and so thick it was difficult to sew or knit or even hold a teacup without dropping it.”
If that quote made you queasy, you should note that the novel is also brutally realistic with horrific scenes from the trenches and at the treatment facilities. French doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war and the horrors specific to WWI, but she doesn’t linger on them either.
This novel and French’s factual notes are a tribute to the thousands if not millions of women who volunteered for service during WWI. French also includes details about the men of Australian and New Zealand who fought, such as how they were often considered cannon fodder by their British officers. I didn’t know that, per capita, Australia and New Zealand suffered the highest casualty and death rates of any country involved in WWI.
I think it’s important to read about past wars in part to understand not only what people endured, but why (usually never a good enough reason) and to help understand the present, as well. The best fiction and non-fiction does this, but as French writes,”War is perhaps humanity’s craziest invention. But it is also in war–in any adversity–that humans sometimes show their greatest courage, loyalty and love. It is important, I think, to understand the difference between glorifying war and celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit amid the battles.”
French does as good a job as possible in not glorifying the war and seems to try more on celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit. She shows that there are many different sorts of battles that people may endure.
I highly recommend this historical novel to young adults as well as adults. Have you read this or other novels by Jackie French? Her historical novel Hitler’s Daughter looks really good, too.