Confession: The day I received Working Title Presses’ latest release, An ANZAC Tale, I was assailed with nostalgia and immense trepidation.
How does one do justice to one of the most unjustifiable periods of human history? Ruth Stark and Greg Holfeld have done it and done it admirably well. The result is a meticulously researched and presented graphic picture book that possesses the unique duality of being both breathtakingly beautiful, and poignantly tragic.
It is almost that time of year when we gather as a nation to commemorate and reflect on one of the most fiercely contested campaigns of WWI, the battle of Gallipoli. But how does one pass comment on the interpretation of the tenacity, stupidity, bravery and strength of spirit of humanity without sounding trite or conceited? I wasn’t sure I could manage it as masterfully as the Stark Holfeld team. So I didn’t try.
Instead I revisited the tale, and with each turn of the page, was transported back to a time over two decades ago, when I gazed across the benign azure waters of Suvla Bay and ANZAC Cove, on the European side of Turkey’s Gelibolu Peninsular. Sunshine bronzed my already travel-tanned shoulders and the smell of the Aegean Sea filled my lungs. Nothing permeated the silence that engulfed us, not even the cry of sea birds. I stared at the impossibly steep cliffs looming up from the beach and shivered in spite of the heat.
I remember standing in the trenches of The Nek and Second Ridge, shallow now, scalloped smooth by time. A pine scented breeze played about my neck. We stood unmoving, listening to it whisper through the pines; the sound of a thousand souls sighing around us. And tears seared my eyes, blurred my vision of the honey coloured earth as I struggled to imagine it stained vile by the colours of war and battled to comprehend the futility, the valour, the discomfort, and the stench of human corruption.
We were led about by our Turkish guide with quiet reverence, not because he thought we were special, but because we were Aussies. We had already earned his respect and our right to be there. We felt that as absolutely as the heat pulsating up from the baked earth.
I remember visiting Chunuk Bair, Lone Pine; standing in front of the walls of names, searching, too many to read through; I’ll be here all day, I thought. Compared to whom? I found a pine seed from that tree and slipped it into my pocket, (just as Ray did for his mate Wally). When the afternoon sun lost its sting, we slipped away quietly from the trenches and had Turkish Dondurma (ice-cream) to temper the memory of what we had seen and felt; acutely aware of enjoying a pleasure and a respite that would have been denied to the ANZACS.
My brief sojourn to Gelibolu makes me no more of an expert on the event and the place than the next Aussie backpacker. Yet it has created an indelible memory with which An ANZAC Tale resonates profoundly.
The enormity of the ANZAC’s story is handled with remarkable lightness of touch and told by Ruth Stark with a respectful, quintessential Aussie jocularity. It is never sentimental or laboured but simply follows best mates Ray Martin and Wally Cardwell as they experience the first landing at ANZAC Cove on the 25th April 1915. What followed became a battle of endurance and wits sadly resulting in thousands of deaths on both sides.
The popular comic-style graphic format is dominated by the illustrations of Greg Holfeld that are brutally faithful to the moment without depicting gratuitous guts and gore. The last charge in particular rips with chaotic movement, terror and finality but not in a way that traumatises the reader.
Wally, Roy and their new, fortune-seeking mate, Tom, head an anthropomorphic cast of Aussie characters. They are buck Roos, who rub shoulders with Kiwis (the birds) and various other national fauna. The Drill Major is a raucous bossy cockatoo. Egyptians are depicted as cats. Wily and resourceful magpies represent enterprising privates and Johnny Turk is portrayed as the ‘black eared’ caracal lynx, from the Turkish word karakulak. This cat is described as being fiercely territorial which accurately translates to the Turks’ indomitable fighting spirit.
An ANZAC Tale not only chronicles a significant period of history difficult for young people to fathom in a way that they (young boys and reluctant readers in particular) will find enthralling and exciting but also takes us on a deeply moving journey (tears were never far away for me) through the vagaries of Australian society in the early twentieth Century and the complexities of warfare. All this is brilliantly supported with maps, notes and a timeline.
‘Why would any Australian want to come to Gallipoli?’ Ray asks Tom as they evacuate under the cover of darkness on the 18th of December 1915. You don’t need to turn the last page to find the answer to that poignant question, but you’ll be touched when you do.
If you haven’t yet been or are unlikely to get the family to Gallipoli any time soon, An ANZAC Tale is an outstanding armchair substitute. Beautifully bound and twice the length of a normal picture book, it will appeal best to older aged primary children and those who’d rather reflect than analyse.
Working Title Press 2013 Available now