Somewhere in France

Somewhere in France

Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: The Daughters of Mars

In The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally (Vintage: 2012), two Australian sisters--Sally and Naomi Durrance--join the Australian military nursing service and serve in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front during the First World War. The two women seem as different as chalk and cheese at the beginning of the book. After both receive nurses' training, Sally remains on the family dairy farm to nurse her ill mother and work at the local hospital while her older sister goes to work in more prestigious Sydney. Naomi is stylish, Sally lacks confidence and is shy and reserved.

There is a controversy over their mother's death; a worry that somehow one of the sisters--out of compassion and love--helped her along to her eternal rest. The two women, held together by this common event, eventually become fast friends. The book wonderfully describes the kind of lives that nurses of this period experienced. Like the soldiers, many nurses had never left their country. Now they visit the pyramids in Egypt and are made speechless by what they see. "Dear Papa," writes Sally, "How can I tell you of what Naomi and I have seen...?" Keneally helps the readers understand the many risks the women take. One of the ships they are on is torpedoed, a colleague is raped (something that is little discussed in Great War histories), their hospitals are frequently bombed into oblivion. Developments in medical science are explored (one doctor insists on wearing a mask when going from an infectious patient to visit others), along with post traumatic stress in both nurses and the men they care for, the problem of disease--dysentery, typhoid, etc., and the unrelenting quality of the war. Keneally brilliantly reveals how the war gradually wears the women down to the point that they become its victims, too.

The book does give some sense of hope; at the end of the book the war is over and life continues on, with some happiness and fulfillment for some of the characters in the book; but the scars remain. Highly recommended.