Review – Aussie Day Reads

With only a few more sleeps till another day of flag flying and fly swatting, it’s time to dig out the meat pies, ice the lamingtons and chill the beers. Australia Day means different things to different Aussies but the sense of camaraderie is an underlying similarity in us all.

Midnight There are dozens of Australian based books to cheer about this week, but these two, whilst equally at home on ANZAC reading lists, deserve mention now because of their strong patriotic appeal.

The horses didnt' come home Midnight, The Story of a Light Horse by picture book duo, Mark Greenwood and Frane Lessac and The Horses Didn’t Come Home by faction YA writer, Pamela Rushby, both tell the tale of the Australian Light Horse regiments that took part in ‘one of the last great cavalry charges in history’.

Each of these books deals with the campaign in the Sinai desert in a way that young readers will resonate with even though the story is over 90 years old.

Midnight is based on the true accounts of Lieutenant Guy Haydon and his jet black mare, Midnight. It begins with Midnight’s birth by the riverside at Bloomfield Station in the Hunter Valley, to the mare, Moonlight. All is cool and dark and yielding as reflected in the soft prose and passive illustrations.

Midnight enjoys a close bond with Guy as the two of them work the cattle in their high country home. But it’s the season of unrest, and overseas the first of the Great Wars intensifies. Guy and Midnight heed the call and ‘ride to join the Light Horse’ along with thousands of others.

Frane LessacThey enter a strange new world, hot, dry and aggressive; the deserts of the Middle East so beautifully rendered by Lessac’s gouache painted illustrations, and set course for a seemingly do-or-die finale at the ancient town of Beersheba. The 4th and 12th Regiments of the Australian Light Horse are rallied in a last desperate attempt to smash Turkish lines fiercely guarding the precious wells of Beersheba. Success seems unlikely; 800 riders against three thousand well-entrenched soldiers, but miraculously, after the order to charge is given, Beersheba is taken and the Turkish line of defence is broken, thus changing the history of WWI in the Sinai Desert forever.

Light Horse Cavalry charge Frane Lessac's Midnight

Mark GreenwoodI enjoyed Greenwood’s sparse yet expressive text. We are given just enough information to allow us to feel the full awful force of battle and share the heart wrenching bond between horse and rider. Young readers should not be frightened or disturbed by all the action-orientated facts and words however, because they are never delivered brutally or aimlessly.

The depiction of Australia’s historic war past has been visited by Greenwood and Lessac before with titles including Simpson and His Donkey, for example. Lessac’s humble yet honest, full page illustrations work well when coupled with the stark realisms of WWI history. I found the illustrations of the closing pages of Midnight particularly endearing. Although steeped in sadness, they transport us gently home to a place of starlit skies and moonlight.

Pam Rushby Pamela Rushby’s The Horses Didn’t Come Home treats this same slice of our past with equal sensitivity and respect. I was in tears by the end of the prologue and completely entranced by the tale of Harry and his campaign overseas, this time with a horse named, Bunty.

Bunty is another Australia Waler, hailing from the rugged Australian bush who actually belongs to Harry’s sister, Laura. Their story is told in alternating points of view through the use of letters home from Harry to his family, Laura and interestingly, letters from Bunty (courtesy of Harry for his sister).

You may know the history behind the poignant story. We all know the amazing outcome. The horses won the day. But Rushby tells it in such an absorbing way that the sting of the sun, the smell of horse sweat, the buzz of the flies and the tension of the parching patrols keeps you tethered to the desert long after the battle is over and the book is done. It is nothing short of superlative.

I especially enjoyed Rushby’s author notes at the end, sharing her discovery of Beersheba and highlighting the background to the story. Older aged primary school readers will find this an easily digestible, intriguing and deeply stirring read which in all likelihood will stimulate their appetite to explore our bold past further.

Both books highly recommended as classic Aussie reads.

Midnight, The story of a light horse Walker Books Australia February 2014. Available now here! Suitable for primary school aged.

The Horses Didn’t Come Home Angus & Robertson, Harper Collins Publishers Australia March 2012. Suitable for older primary aged readers and up.

Park of the Australian Solider in Beersheba monument
Park of the Australian Solider monument
Beersheba

 

 

 

Not a Review – A Reflection of An ANZAC Tale

An ANZAC TaleConfession: 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.Landing spot ANZAC Cove

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.

GeliboluWe 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.Ruth Stark

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.

RoosThe 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.

Ruth Stark and Greg HolfeldWally, 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.Bugler

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