In brief: There’s a breakout at the POW camp in Cowra during World War II and Hiroshi is the only man to escape. He is protected by the Aboriginal people at Erambie Station, where he also falls in love.
The good: Different aspect of Australia during World War II and the marginalisation of the Aboriginal people.
The not-so-good: I devoured this in a few nights.
Why I chose it: Thank you to Simon & Schuster.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Setting: Cowra, Australia
My rating: 8 out of 10
I’m not sure about other Australians, but I grew up knowing about the Cowra breakout (it also was the term used every time my budgie tried to open the door of his cage). Later on, I visited Cowra in country New South Wales and saw the site of the prisoner of war camp and the beautiful Japanese gardens. I knew that there was a mass breakout of the Japanese POWs but I haven’t really stopped to consider the impact of the escape on all the townspeople. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms covers the escape and subsequent months from the points of view of two groups not often considered – the Aboriginal people of Erambie Station and the Japanese POW Hiroshi. It’s a story that makes you stop and consider what you thought you knew about Australia at that time.
The story opens with the breakout from Hiroshi’s point of view. As he runs for his life and freedom, he sees fellow POWs killed (it is better to be killed than be a prisoner, as being a prisoner is shameful to the Japanese people). He makes it to Erambie, where he is spotted by Banjo Williams. Banjo is a kind man, and he knows what it’s like to be on the fringe and to be hated for being different. The Aboriginal man then takes Hiroshi home and hides him in the family’s bomb shelter. To Banjo and his family, Hiroshi is just another human being – not yellow like some of the townspeople say and just as in need of support and sustenance. Banjo’s family devise a plan to keep Hiroshi safe, dividing up their already meagre food rations. Because being an Aboriginal person at Erambie means that it’s not dissimilar to Hiroshi’s life at the POW camp – there’s rations, rules and restrictions but life at Erambie is even more controlling.
Mary, Banjo’s daughter and the designated deliverer of food to Hiroshi knows this all too well. She can’t marry who she wants – in fact, she needs to ask permission first! To leave Erambie, she must gain permission from the station’s manager, King Billie (aka John Smith). There’s never enough food to go round and living conditions are cramped and basic. Mary’s a smart girl too but she must work for the Smiths. She’s fascinated by Hiroshi, a gentle man who wanted nothing more than to write haiku. Each night they learn about each other’s living conditions and culture. Are the pair so different? Each restricted from doing what they planned to do – is it not a waste? It was beautiful watching this pair gently fall in love but what was to come next was painful, potentially brutal as Hiroshi is forced to come out of hiding and the pair to declare their love…
Anita Heiss doesn’t sugar-coat the facts, this is an honest story rooted in history. The White Australia policy, the Japanese hatred and the severe restrictions put on lives due to skin colour are all there. But the tone is much more gentle and loving than you might expect. Overall this is a love story and a beautiful one that will being a tear to the eye. (And if that doesn’t, the epilogue surely will). It’s well written and evokes not only the time period, but the setting of the land and the Aboriginal peoples’ close relationship with it. I’m glad to have read this story, I feel it’s made me consider that there’s more to history than the official, documented version.