Monday, January 11, 2021

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss sees the WWII home front from the Indigenous Australian perspective

On August 5, 1944, hundreds of Japanese POWs in a compound on the outskirts of Cowra, a small town in central New South Wales, Australia, organized a mass breakout, driven by the shame brought on their families due to their captivity. With her historical novel using this pivotal event as a starting point, Anita Heiss imagines a gentle romance between an escaped Japanese soldier, Hiroshi, and Mary Williams, eldest daughter of an Aboriginal family that grants him refuge. 

Dr. Heiss, a member of the Wiradjuri nation, makes a unique contribution to WWII literature by depicting the Indigenous Australian perspective on the home front. She warmly depicts the interactions among the Williams family members, their friends, and neighbors, as well as the growing rapport between seventeen-year-old Mary and Hiroshi, who must spend long, lonely days concealed in an air raid shelter, his only respite being Mary’s visits with the meager rations she’s able to give him. 

I found aspects of the love story somewhat far-fetched, but the couple’s ongoing dialogue enables the author to relate the characteristics of their substantially different cultures. Above ground, the story highlights the strength of the Williams parents, Banjo and Joan, who raise their family with dignity on Erambie Mission, knowing that white authorities won’t hesitate to take their children away if they’re found slacking on household cleanliness. 

They take huge risks in sheltering Hiroshi but – not without some disagreement among them – choose to act out of human kindness, and with the knowledge that they and the Japanese are both fighting against the Australian government at the time. Forbidden to own their hereditary lands, Aboriginal people have their lives strictly controlled and aren’t able to vote – the people at Erambie have less freedom than even the Italian POWs working on farms nearby. The writing flows easily throughout this sensitively drawn story.

I read this from a personal copy. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms was published by Simon & Schuster Australia in 2016.  The novel may not be easy for non-Australians to find these days, but it's worth seeking out for its storyline, history, and viewpoint.

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