Title: Khaki Town
Author: Judy Nunn
Published: October 1st 2019
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4 stars
Judy Nunn’s new bestseller is a breathtaking historical novel set in Queensland during World War II.
Khaki Town, Judy Nunn’s exciting new novel, is inspired by a true wartime story that has remained a well-kept secret for over seventy years.
It seems to have happened overnight, Val thought . How extraordinary. We’ve become a khaki town.
It’s March 1942. Singapore has fallen. Darwin has been bombed. Australia is on the brink of being invaded by the Imperial Japanese Forces. And Val Callahan, publican of The Brown’s Bar in Townsville, could not be happier as she contemplates the fortune she’s making from lonely, thirsty soldiers.
Overnight the small Queensland city is transformed into the transport hub for 70,000 American and Australian soldiers destined for combat in the South Pacific. Barbed wire and gun emplacements cover the beaches. Historic buildings are commandeered. And the dance halls are in full swing with jazz, jitterbug and jive.
The Australian troops begrudge the confident, well-fed ‘Yanks’ who have taken over their town and their women. There’s growing conflict, too, within the American ranks, because black GIs are enjoying the absence of segregation. And the white GIs don’t like it.
As racial violence explodes through the ranks of the military, a young United States Congressman, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is sent to Townsville by his president to investigate. ‘Keep a goddamned lid on it, Lyndon,’ he is told, ‘lest it explode in our faces …’
FACT OR FICTION
‘Khaki Town is a work of fiction, inspired by factual events about which very little is known. This makes for an interesting combination for the reader (at least I hope so) and something of a test for the author (I know so).’
Judy Nunn, Author’s Note, Khaki Town
Townsville in the 1940s comes alive through the expert penmanship of dedicated Australian historical fiction author Judy Nunn. Nunn is no novice to this field of fiction, and Khaki Town represents the fifteenth published novel by the talented writer. In this tale of war, race relations, inequality, government policy and politics, Khaki Town opens the reader’s eyes to a shameful and concealed chapter in our World War II history books.
The Pacific War surges on when Khaki Town begins. Darwin has recently been bombed and the Japanese continue to encroach on Australian territory. At crisis point, the Australians call in for extra resources. In response, the US Army sends in extra troops to our nation. The site of Townsville, in Queensland, becomes the base for both American and Australian soldiers. The once sleepy town of Townsville is soon transformed, and everyone in the little town in impacted by the presence of the army – in one way or another. For some residents of Townsville, there are more opportunities to extend business ventures, or form new romantic relationships. But not everyone is content, or satisfied with the current arrangements. The Australian troops start to rebel and object to the US soldiers taking over their patch. Meanwhile, there are tensions between the white and black American troops, causing disharmony in their ranks. Eventually things come to head, and a terrible act of violence occurs. To safeguard the situation and prevent it reaching the public, the US sends out an ambitious congressman, who goes into damage control. However, this incident marks the beginning of a terrible cover up that will reverberate down the Australian and US army lines for years to come.
Judy Nunn is quite the crusader in the Australian fiction sphere. In many of her novels, Nunn is able to take a political, social or historical issue of contention, and bring it to our collective consciousness, in the form of an accessible narrative. Khaki Town is her latest triumph and it is a book that successfully opens up the channels of conversation around a hidden chapter of Australian wartime history. This slice of unknown history strikes at the very heart of the Australian public, our government and the armed forces. Once you are aware of what happened in Townsville you will be shocked, dismayed and saddened. This is a regrettable chapter in our past, that works to reveal the true extent of racism and discontent prevalent in 1940s Australia.
Nunn devotes plenty of page time to character formation in Khaki Town. As the story unfolds, we learn of the past and back stories of the key protagonists, along with the supporting cast. The stories of Edie, Jill, Betty and Val all resonated with me. I also appreciated the insertion of the four non fictional characters in Khaki Town, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Through the actual and fictional histories of these characters, the reader follows a trail of power, politics, persecution, injustice, prostitution, business acquisitions, love, sacrifice and much more. Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the exploration into these lives is the cruel displacement policy impacting many indigenous Australians, which is told through the tragic story of one of the figures of this novel. The forced exile of many Indigenous Australians from their homes, to Palm Island was utterly appalling. It left a heavy stain on my heart. However, at the core of Khaki Town is the terrible treatment of the US black servicemen, at the hands of both their own army, the Australian army personnel and the government. It eventually rears its ugly head in the form of an awful act of violence. What emerges is a powerful story of deliberate concealment, ill judgement, regret, race relations, out of touch government policy, injustice and hate. Nunn does not sugar coat the crux of her novel in any way, but it did leave a bitter taste in my mouth afterwards.
A final word on the research of this book. I was impressed by the extensive research Judy Nunn has clearly undertaken to inform her novel. With a two year turn around in each novel she produces, Nunn takes her time to immerse herself in her main subject matter. In the ‘Acknowledgements’ section at the close of the novel, the research sources referenced by Nunn provides the audience with a good indication of the extent of the research she has conducted. As a result, the reader is presented with a very accessible history, and for many, this history is likely to have been unfamiliar, prior to reading Khaki Town.
Khaki Town is a historical tale told with conviction. The authoritative voice of Judy Nunn reveals a story of inequality, racism, love, determination, personal strength and a closely guarded history from Australia’s wartime past.
Khaki Town by Judy Nunn was published on 1st October 2019 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Khaki Town, Judy Nunn, visit here.
*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Khaki Town is book #125 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge