The Blurb (from Goodreads):
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 delicate and simply told love story set in Cowra, NSW, in the aftermath of the famous breakout of Japanese prisoners-of-war from their internment camp in 1944. Anita Heiss has drawn on her own family’s oral history to create this story of a Japanese soldier who is kept hidden by an Indigenous family who were themselves living in detention, on an Aboriginal mission nearby.
Hiroshi feels deep shame at being made a prisoner, and for failing to fight for his Emperor, but he cannot bring himself to commit ritual suicide like so many of the other escaped Japanese soldiers.
He is kept hidden by the Williams family, who work for a pittance for the mission. Food is scarce, and feeding an escaped prisoner stretches their resources to their limits. But they know what it is like to be considered a second-class citizen, and determine to act with the justice and compassion that White Australia has failed to show to them.
It is the job of the eldest daughter, Mary, to take Hiroshi food and water. Gradually, as they talk and share details of their lives, they fall in love. It is dangerous for them both, though. Hiroshi is an enemy, and feeling against the Japanese is running high in the small Australian town. And Mary is no more free – she is living under laws which seek to keep indigenous people disenfranchised and enslaved.
It was this aspect of the novel which I found most interesting. Anita Heiss draws clear parallels between the prisoner-of-war camp and the mission, and indeed makes it clear the Japanese prisoners often had a better quality of life than the original owners of the land.