2016 Reviews · historical fiction · war

Book Review: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss

Title: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossomsbarbed

Author: Anita Heiss

Published: August 1st 2016

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia

Pages: 

Genres: Fiction, Historical, Australian

RRP: $32.99

Rating: 5 stars

5 August, 1944: Over 1000 Japanese soldiers attempt to break out of the No. 12 Prisoner of War compound on the fringes of Cowra. In the carnage, hundreds are killed, many are recaptured and imprisoned, and some take their own lives rather than suffer the humiliation of ongoing defeat. But one soldier, Hiroshi, determined to avoid either fate, manages to escape.

At nearby Erambie Aboriginal mission, Banjo Williams, father of nine and proud man of his community, discovers a distraught Hiroshi, pleading for help. The people of Erambie have seen enough death and heartache, so Banjo and the Erambie community decide to offer Hiroshi refuge.

Mary, Banjo’s daughter, recently returned from being in service in Sydney, is intrigued by the Japanese stranger, and is charged with his care. Love blossoms, but life for the community on the mission is one of restriction – living under Acts of Protection and Assimilation, and always under the watchful eye of the mission manager. In wartime Australia, the children are terrified of air raids, but their parents fear a life without rights. And for Mary and Hiroshi, there is much in their way.
Mary is forbidden under the Act, and by her own father, to marry Hiroshi, so together they plot their own escape from the mission. But solidarity in the community is eroding and trouble is brewing.

A story about a love that transcends all boundaries, from one of Australia’s best loved authors

My review:

Nestled between the pages of a tender love story that plays out between Hiroshi , a Japanese soldier and Mary, a young indigenous woman, is the powerful exploration of a part of Australia’s World War II history. Anita Heiss, an accomplished Australian author, tackles love, war, racism and compassion in her stunning new novel, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms.

Heiss examines a slice of history that played out during World War II in New South Wales. A major breakout at a Prisoner of War compound occurred in the August of 1944. While many soldiers were recaptured or sadly committed suicide, a handful of prisoners managed to remain at large. Hiroshi, a university educated, gentle young Japanese man, is one such escapee that makes a desperate bid for freedom. He ends up on the outskirts of the main town of Cowra, on a local aboriginal mission named Erambie Station. Here, he finds acceptance and sanctuary in the form of Aboriginal elders, who decide to save his life and hide him in a bunker on the mission. When the daughter of a prominent elder is sent to check on Hiroshi and provide him with his daily food allowance, an unlikely relationship forms. The two begin to exchange anecdotes on their differing cultures and the cruel polices that have prevented both from leading a free life. A friendship eventually blossoms into love. However, Hiroshi and Mary know that even if the war ends, it is very unlikely that they will be able to live as they desire.

Anita Heiss has brought a little known chapter in Australia’s World War II history to life for the reader in her evocative novel, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms. For me, the strength of this book lies in the exploration of the hidden history of the POW camp. Coming to the novel with a lack of knowledge of both internment camps for POW soldiers in the war, as well as next to no understanding of aboriginal missions, made this novel all the more enthralling. Heiss has clearly embarked on a meticulous level of research to build her story upon. I feel the research simply shines through her writing and the narrative as a whole.

The pleasure that I gained from reading Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms came chiefly from the principal characters Hiroshi and Mary. I loved gentle Hiroshi, the Japanese soldier, saved and hidden by the aboriginal elders on the mission. Hiroshi shows the reader a very personal side to World War II, the interned Japanese perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed the moments where Hiroshi shared his rich culture and general views on life with Mary.  In Mary, whom I also loved, I gleaned an understanding of the aboriginal culture, as well as the appalling lack of general human rights in this era. What also compelled me to turn pages was the fragile relationship that developed between Hiroshi and Mary as the book progresses. To me, it sent the message that love knows no boundaries in the face of war and adversity.

There is much that can be taken away from the experience of reading Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms. As well as being a tender love story, it is a fine exploration of two different cultures and the confronting policies of the time. The novel also offers a lesson in the art of compassion, in the face of hopelessness. This is a story that needs to be told and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to do so, through the writing of Anita Heiss, a gifted Australian storyteller.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss was published in August 2016, by Simon & Schuster Australia.

 

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