Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss
Review by Kylie Thompson
Rating: 4 and a half stars
Genre: historical fiction, romance, drama
When we talk about World War Two, the focus is on the noble fight for freedom, and the young soldiers and nurses who never came home. We forget, or ignore, that while a war was waged in the name of freedom, and we railed against the inhumanity of the Nazi regime, we were blithely terrorising Indigenous Australians.
It’s not a popular conversation topic, granted. It doesn’t quite live up to the myths and legends we tell about the era. After all, it’s hard to rail against the attempted genocides committed by the Nazis without questioning why the attempted genocide of Indigenous Australians was seen as acceptable. So, for the most part, we just don’t talk about it.
In ‘Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms’, Anita Heiss brings a painful truth into the light with more warmth and grace than is likely deserved.
Though the landscape is beautiful, Erambie Station isn’t exactly paradise. It’s a settlement created as part of the Aboriginal Protection Act, a dumping ground for Indigenous families so that the government can ‘keep an eye’ on them. There’s little education offered for the children, and the word of the Station Manager is absolute law. For Mary, eldest daughter of one of the community elders, dreams of living life on her terms are tempered by life at the beck and call of the Manager, his oblivious wife and over-indulged children.
The families on the Station struggle to survive on meagre rations, their homes made from whatever wood they can scavenge. A few kilometres down the road, the Italian POWs are living a vastly different lifestyle. Though they’d only recently been trying to kill Australian soldiers, the Italian POWs are well fed, given better shelters, and even have access to real medical care. There’s even talk that they’re allowed out of the camp, taking work in Cowra.
The Japanese POWs aren’t quite so lucky. Though they’re treated far better than those at Erambie, they’re denied many of the luxuries offered the Italians, and a bitter rivalry grows. Bound by cultural obligations, the Japanese soldiers decide to escape. Only one makes it.
Hiroshi doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t have any plan beyond running and hiding. When he’s found by Mary’s father, Banjo, Hiroshi fears the worst. But Banjo doesn’t turn him in. Instead, he hides the POW in the Station’s air raid shelter, sending Mary down nightly with food and water. It isn’t much- there’s not enough for the families without adding another mouth to feed- but Banjo and his family do what they can.
Every night, Hiroshi and Mary talk, finding common ground in their vastly different cultures and experiences. And as love blossoms between them, they’ll have to question whether it’s enough to overcome the obstacles they face.
Heiss has a gift for acknowledging hard truths with all the poetic forcefulness of a velvet wrapped fist. In ‘Barbed Wire And Cherry Blossoms’, Heiss somehow manages to create a romantic, beautiful story while pulling no punches about the treatment of Indigenous Australians during WWII. It’s at times a rather galling read. It’s hard not to rage at the injustices seen as everyday occurrences in the era being portrayed. And yet, it’s a fair representation of life under the Protection Act. Heiss has researched extensively, to the point this feels like the retelling of a true story rather than a work of pure fiction.
If the mark of a good story lies in its power to make you think, and to make you question, than this is likely one of the best books of the year. ‘Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms’ is published by Simon and Schuster, and is available at leading retailers both offline and on.