Peter Pierce

Between the wars, the dominant mode of Australian fiction was the saga: tales of land-taking and nation-building, melodramas within families across generations, characters shaped by loneliness and obsession ...

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Of the fate of Australian prisoners of war in the hands of the Japanese during World War II, the literature – memoir, fiction, history – is voluminous. There were 21,652 of them, of whom thirty-five per cent, or 7780, perished. A good deal has also been written of enemy prisoners – Japanese, German, Italian – who were held in camps in this country, and in pa ...

For many undergraduate students of Australian history in the 1960s (when there were still plenty of them), the set text was not a narrative history but Manning Clark’s Select Documents in Australian History (1950, 1955). Dry but fascinating, the documents covered the period from 1788–1900. First published more than a decade before the opening volume of Clark’s A History of Australia, here were the bones of the research for that work. In his introduction to Documents That Shaped Australia: Records of a Nation’s Heritage, John Thompson acknowledges Clark and Frank Crowley’s Modern Australia in Documents (1973). He has, however, done something different. This book has a smaller number of items than its predecessors, but it is attractively and extensively illustrated (usually, but not always, with photographs of the documents). No doubt Thompson’s publisher, Pier 9, thought of school library sales for the book. It is a hope that deserves to be rewarded.

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Late in November 1916, the German commerce raider Wolf, laden with 100 tonnes of mines, set out on a journey of 100,000 kilometres across three oceans. After the ship reached home, in February 1918, 442 days later, its guns and mines had destroyed more than twenty Allied vessels. Hundreds of their crews and passengers had been held captive. When the voyage of the Wolf began, German U-boats were sinking hundreds of thousands of tonnes of shipping each month. The belated adoption of the convoy system drastically reduced those losses, so that the Germans, rather than the British, suffered the worse privation in the last year of the Great War. In that time, Wolf was the only German surface warship not penned up by the British naval blockade.

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In September 1943, seventeen commandos of Z Special Force, led by Lieutenant Commander Ivan Lyon, attacked and sank with limpet mines seven ships in the Singapore harbour. A year later, in October 1944, when the Pacific War had only months to run, a repeat performance failed and all those involved were ...

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When it was first published, Tasmanian army nurse and prisoner of war Jessie Simons entitled her memoir of captivity While History Passed (1954). It was reissued as In Japanese Hands (1985). This was one of the numerous autobiographical works produced after their ordeal by POW survivors, whether they were driven by an enduring hatred of their captors (Rohan Rivett, Russell Braddon) or by a striving for forgiveness (Ray Parkin). In his study of ‘Literary imagination and the prisoner-of-war experience’, Roger Bourke has turned instead to what he regards as the neglected area of fiction (sometimes autobiographically tinged) of captivity by the Japanese in World War II. His range encompasses British as well as Australian authors. He is particularly concerned with what the film industry made of such novels as Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice (book 1950, film 1956), Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1954, 1957), James Clavell’s King Rat (1962, 1965) and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984, 1987).

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Writing novels, he’s Tom Keneally. Works of history – such as The Great Shame (1998) about the Irish diaspora to the USA and Australian in the nineteenth century, and this year’s American Scoundrel, concerned with the adventures of politician, general and amorist Dan Sickles – are by Thomas Keneally. There is more doubling in Keneally’s most recent novel, for he uses two titles. In this country, we have An Angel in Australia; in Britain, The Office of Innocence. Each suggests a different line of approach to a novel that seems in some ways old-fashioned, so instinct is it with his earlier work. By the way, Keneally’s novel count is now twenty-six, including two under the pseudonym ‘William Coyle’.

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In Alex Miller’s latest novel, Journey to the Stone Country, we are not in Carlton for long before being taken far to the north, to Townsville, and then inland to country that few Australians know. The short first scene is handled with dispassionateness and economy. Melbourne history lecturer Annabelle Beck comes home to ...

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Peter Pierce’s concern in this critical study is with two periods – from the second half of the nineteenth century, when most of the myths of the lost child began to appear, and the second half of this century, when a quite different kind of narrative emerges. The period in between he regards as largely a consolidation of the late nineteenth-century examples. Ranging widely over not only literature but pictorial art and contemporary factual accounts, he shows the striking changes that take place in the forms in which the legend appears.

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A nation at war is a less than gripping tide, although it is suggestively ambiguous. Australia was at war in Vietnam for most of the decade covered in Peter Edwards’s book. In senses chiefly, but not wholly, metaphorical, it was also a society ‘at war’, divided over conscription and the commitment of troops to Vietnam. The excellent cover photograph illuminates the latter implication of Edwards’s title, as well as the importance of media coverage of both overseas conflict and domestic protest against it. A newsreel photographer looks back into another camera, and away from the policeman who is struggling to shift an inert demonstrator.

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