Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is a fictional retelling of the Cowra Breakout – on August 5 1944 approximately 1000 Japanese prisoners of war attempted to break out from the No 12 prison camp. This resulted in hundreds of deaths, both from guns of the Australian soldiers and at the hands of the Japanese prisoners themselves as many killed themselves and others to put an end to the ongoing shame of their situation.
In this book Anita Heiss focuses on a fictional situation – Hiroshi escapes from the camp and hides in the local Aboriginal mission of Erambie. He is discovered by Banjo Williams, who talks his extended family into giving Hiroshima refuge and hiding him from the white mission manager and the rest of the mission’s population. Banjo’s 17 year old daughter is entrusted with taking Hiroshi the little food they can spare.
Hiroshi and Mary share their cultures and eventually their hearts, but their love is not just dangerous, it’s illegal and there is no chance they will have a happy ending.
Heiss doesn’t disappoint with this sad story of life on the mission during the war, and the falling in love of two people from vastly different backgrounds. It is awful to note that the Aboriginal people on the mission were less well treated than the prisoners of war, who were treated according to the Geneva convention. Think about that for a moment. Also consider that this time is still within living memory.
As the two love birds share more information with each other, we are also treated to and accessible discussion of the Aborigines Protection Act, which rules Aboriginal life and treatment at this point in history. I was not aware of this piece of legislation and the conditions that went with it. There is also a discussion of Aboriginal soldiers who participated in the First World War and their ill treatment which is another sad reflection on the history of this country.
Apart from the central story, there is a wide cast of characters who I really enjoyed getting to know and add wonderful layers to the story. Marj the gossip was so delightfully obnoxious I couldn’t help but love her.
Mary was also delightful, and while her story was sad, it wasn’t without hope.
Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is both a lovely and an important read.
5 out of 5 reasons to #change the date.
Dr Anita Heiss is currently visiting bookshops around the country to talk about this one. If you are in Brisbane, she will be at Avid Reader on Feb 5.