Empire Day by Diane Armstrong

In a nutshell… The story of Australia post WWII, in particular the ‘New Australians’, told by the residents of Wattle Street, Bondi Junction.

Strengths: Really captures the period of post-war Sydney and the reactions to the immigrants are similar to today.

Weaknesses: A lot of characters, occasionally hard to remember where they fit in

Why I read it: Galley from Net Galley, courtesy of Harper Collins Australia

Pages: 512 (ebook)

Published: 2011

Publisher: Harper Collins Australia

Setting: Sydney, Australia

Rating: 9 out of 10

If you liked this, try: Bryce Courtenay or Peter Yeldham

I love Australian historical fiction, but the late 1940s and 50s is somewhat devoid of books. It was a time of great change, but perhaps it’s too recent in the minds of our grandparents and parents to reflect yet with must nostalgia. There was still rationing but Australia was changing. The entry of many ‘New Australians’, displaced people from World War II was changing the Australian landscape from one of 6pm pub closing and tea drinking to coffee lounges and exotic food. Many of these immigrants simply had no home to go to – Italians, Russians, Latvians, Ukrainians, the Polish and the Jewish people – and ended up here, sometimes not by choice as there was nothing for them – no home, no family, no friends. This is their story and those of those already settled in Australia. Empire Day has particular relevance to me as my paternal grandparents arrived on such a ship to Australia from devastated Eastern Europe via a refugee camp in Germany – they didn’t (and still don’t) know what became of their family. My maternal grandparents were already ‘Aussie’ so it was really interesting to hear the stories of those in Wattle Street and compare them to that of my own family.

As you’d expect, there are many characters in this book as it’s the residents of the street and it can be difficult to keep up initially with who’s who, particularly the Polish and Latvian residents (my genes lack that ability!). But the established Australian residents soon typically give them nicknames and for the majority, embrace the differences and warmly welcome the refugees. There are several topics covered that are still relevant in Australia today – do the refugees accept the ways of the new country or maintain the ways of the old? Should they forget their horrific past or share it with others? Do they mingle outside their ethnic group? Different characters have different reactions to these – for Ted, it’s falling in love with a Latvian girl; but for her father, dating an Australian boy is something he can’t forgive.

Other topics of the time covered well in Empire Day are the polio epidemic (Meggsie, a red-headed larrikin is told he’ll never walk again), rationing post war (I didn’t know Australia still rationed butter then), the lack of decent coffee (we were still a nation of tea drinkers) and the leftovers of ‘Razorhurst’ (as seen on Underbelly: Razor). I didn’t even know about Empire Day until I read this book!

The Australian spirit of ‘having a go’ and generosity really come through in this book. Whether it’s Miss McNulty helping out Kath or Mr Emil befriending Meggsie, it demonstrates the lack of a class system and the way the ‘New Australians’ were increasingly accepted by the current residents.

This book in general makes me proud to be Australian – Armstrong has perfectly captured the spirit of Australia (better than Qantas anyway!) and it’s a heartwarming read with great characters and very well researched. Bonzer job, mate!

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