November 27, 2013
Vol: 27 No: 48

Arts & Entertainment

Sister acts: Two siblings nurse those injured in WWI and suffer their own emotional wounds

by: Joe Martin , Guest Writer

The Daughters of Mars: A Novel / By Thomas Keneally

WWI Red Cross poster courtesy of Wikipedia/National Archives

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In the early phase of the First World War the Gallipoli Campaign proved a colossal, blood-soaked disaster. An invading force of British, French, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops tried to penetrate the elevated terrain bordering the strait of the Dardenelles in Turkey. They were pitted against an already battle-hardened Turkish foe ensconced strategically on high ground. The intent of the invasion was to take pressure off Russian forces on the Eastern Front by luring the Turks west, defeating them and then taking Constantinople. From the start Gallipoli was a doomed venture. In the words of one historian, it “was a futile and costly sideshow for all the combatants.”

The tangled torment of the Great War provides the epic backdrop to Thomas Keneally’s stunning new work “The Daughters of Mars.” Now 77 years of age, Keneally is the prolific author of celebrated fiction and nonfiction, “Schindler’s List” among them. His latest novel is a staggering achievement and may be his best literary offering yet.

The story revolves around two sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, born of hard-working, uncomplaining parents who farm in the remote Australian countryside. Both sisters pursue careers in nursing. The older Naomi has gone off to the city to escape the drudging demands of rural life; Sally has remained and cares for their dying mother and does her best to maintain a modicum of domesticity for their father. Shortly before their mother’s death Naomi returns to lend support. A subtle, secret discord rives the sisters’ uncertain relationship.

War, vast and ominous, soon intercedes. Independently of each other the sisters volunteer to serve in the medical corps that will tend to the needs of soldiers maimed in battles to come. They have no idea what awaits them on the other side of the world. Their journey into the waiting maw of war begins like a thrilling adventure. Naomi, Sally and their close circle of nursing colleagues are transported to exciting and enchanting environs. Young women who might never have left Australia’s shores find themselves amid scenes most exotic: “As the city was crossed, the peaks of the pyramids showed up ahead in a dust-tainted twilight. They had been heavenly creatures from picture books, gigantic entities in everyone’s imagination, and it was hard now to believe that they were tethered to a specific patch of earth — that they could be casually seen and perhaps approached and then passed by as you’d pass a town.”

Although they care for wounded soldiers, the real war seems far away: “The battle was in Europe. There was only a rumor of it in Palestine, where people said the Turks might be on their way to the Canal. But even now the hospital grew fuller than Sally would have expected until — though there were no aged, no children, no women — it took on some of the atmosphere of quiet bustle which was meant to be the mark of a civil hospital.” In the afterhours the nurses have leisure and often take tea with some officers. There are excursions to the pyramids and the Sphinx. Shortly many of the young men with whom they have become amiably acquainted are consumed in war’s fury. 

Inexorably, war creeps closer. On a hospital ship ostensibly protected by prominently displayed red crosses, the Australian nurses float on the periphery of lamping hostilities. “On the third evening they could see the sky in the east lit by a storm. Everyone rushed to the deck on the rumor that there was what could be called ‘thunder.’ The word failed this clamor up ahead.” It is the sound of Turkish guns. Gallipoli is in the distance. The medical staff makes preparations. Sally muses that “the wounded might be a mere handful.” 

It is a futile hope. At three in the morning the mangled spawn of battle begin to arrive. Sally observes her first wounded soldier whose elbow has been shot off. In the mounting din nurses, physicians and orderlies do their utmost to remain focused and treat oncoming waves of torn and butchered men. Stench and gore become pervasive. Though some casualties have excruciating wounds and give vent to their suffering, many of the wounded endure their wounds with stoicism and even humor. Some expire before sunrise.

Throughout this book, the intensity of treating dazed, bleeding men with the medical procedures and instruments of that time is wrought with exquisite immediacy. Equally well portrayed are the evolving personalities of Naomi, Sally and their comrades as they are irrevocably transformed by their immersion as healers behind the lines or in the midst of martial madness. It is their crucible. All undergo trial and disappointment, loves gained and lost. And lives violated and lost as well.

This is a story of intrepid, compassionate women whose impulse even in the midst of a frenzied aerial bombardment is to care for their wounded charges. Their love and concern for each other as nurses, as friends, as women, and as sisters who have shared in the extraordinary is palpable.

As the war draws to an end Sally Durance reflects that “the war is not a football match. Points were not allotted. Even in success, points were lost.” Keneally again proves himself a masterful storyteller. “Daughters of Mars” is an unforgettable novel, a true work of literature.

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