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26 November 2013

Thomas Keneally: Shame and the Captives

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A major cultural misunderstanding
This is an interesting and challenging book about one of the three main events where WWII impacted directly on the Australian people. Most people know about the bombing of Darwin and the mini-submarine attack on Sydney Harbour, but how many know about the bloody escape by Japanese POW's from a  camp near Cowra, NSW?

During WWII Australian troops captured many prisoners of war on all battlefronts. While some of them were sent to POW camps near where they were captured, by August 1944 there were nearly 20,000 POW's in Australia. Most of them were Italians, but just over two thousand were Japanese most of whom resented the fact that they had not been killed - "The Japanese soldier never permits himself to be taken".

Keneally weaves a fictional story based on the Cowra POW breakout which shows the conflicting culture and emotions of the local people, the camp administration and the different prisoner nationalities. In a fictional town of Gawell, on the tablelands of NSW and far from the battlefronts, a POW camp is built close to a farming community to house European (mostly Italian), Korean and Japanese prisoners. The camp is split into 4 compounds, 2 for the Europeans, 1 solely for Japanese (Compound C) and the fourth for captured Japanese merchants, and Koreans and Taiwanese.

The camp commanders have little understanding of the cultural stresses Japanese prisoners are facing with the disgrace of their capture. Many Japanese give false names, knowing that their families would have been told of their death because they are missing. Many look to death as the only way out of their incarceration and do not understand the compassion and respect given to them by their captors.

Keneally weaves a gentle story of the local community and the integration of trusted Italian prisoners, and the camp commanders and their naive feelings that they should run the camp humanely within the Geneva Convention in the hope that Australian prisoners will also be treated humanely by the other combatants. The camp is lightly guarded because a breakout is considered unlikely. The camp is commanded by officers who are in general mostly too old or injured to fight overseas. What surprised me most by this fictional re-enactment of the breakout was the inept, almost Dad's Army reaction, of the guards and the local training camp to the escape of hundreds of Japanese prisoners from Compound C searching for death.

This is an interesting and sensitive tale based on an important incident in Australia's WWII history. I have recently read Keneally's splendid WWI saga "Daughters of Mars" and in comparison found the writing style of this book to be much dryer and less inspiring than his previous book.

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