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Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom by Anita Heiss

July 20, 2019 13 comments

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss. (2016) Not available in French. 

This billet was due for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week but time went away from me and I’m late.

When Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms opens, we’re in 1944 in Australia. Japanese POW are kept in a camp in Cowra, in NSW, 300k East of Sydney. On August 5th, 1944, a thousand of these POWs escaped from the camp. Most of them died, either killed by Australian guards or because they committed suicide. Indeed, it was so shameful to a Japanese soldier to be held prisoner that it was better to die than come home with such a disgrace.

Hiroshi was among the Japanese who broke free from the camp in Cowra but he didn’t die. He managed to escape and reach the nearby Aboriginal station at Erambie. Banjo Williams, who lives at the mission, finds him and he and his wife Joan decide to hide Hiroshi until he can go home. It is a risky decision and their clandestine gust must stay hidden in a cave.

Banjo and Joan decide that their seventeen years old daughter Mary will bring him food and clothes. Hiroshi studied English at university – a convenient plot device –he can engage into friendly conversations with Mary and communicate properly with his hosts. Mary and Hiroshi get to know each other. Through their talks, the reader learns about Japan and life at the Aboriginal mission. And as expected, they fall in love.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is second Anita Heiss after Not Meeting Mr Right, a fluffy romance whose aim was to show the world that an Aboriginal young woman lived the same way as any Australian young woman of her age. Then I read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, not written but edited by Anita Heiss. It’s a stunning collection of 50 texts written by Aboriginal people from all Australia and all ages. They describe what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia and share their experience. Extremely moving.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is a novel between the two. It’s romance and fiction based on historical facts. It’s a political novel wrapped in a romance cover. Anita Heiss gathered stories and anecdotes from Erambie’s inhabitants and changed them into literary yarn, knitting a novel with a thread of fiction and a thread of history.

I enjoyed reading about life at Erambie and learnt more about the status of Aborigines in the 1940s. I think it’s even worse than Native American living on reserves in the USA. Food resources are limited. Work is rare and Banjo is lucky to be gainfully employed. Aborigines are under the guardianship of the mission’s Manager. They live under Acts of Protection and Assimilation, which means that they don’t have basic civil rights.

Anita Heiss’s purpose is commendable. You don’t catch flies with vinegar and this romance has more chances to attract a wide public than a dry essay. It is effective. The reader sees life through Banjo’s and Mary’s perspective. We feel empathy for them and anger towards the asinine rules they have to abide by. A non-Aboriginal reader will learn things and the novel’s educational aim is obvious, even if subtly played. Whatever works is good if it means that the message of tolerance is heard.

I thought that the romance between Hiroshi and Mary was too obvious, too predictable. In my eyes, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms would have been more powerful if Anita Heiss had chosen a male Aboriginal character who builds a strong friendship with a foreigner. The love card is a cliché that dims the novel’s lights. It’s good research and interesting but the romance is counterproductive and didn’t work for me.

If you want to know more about Aboriginal Australia, I’d recommend to read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Meanwhile, I hope that Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms reached readers who don’t read non-fiction and that it helped Australians face part of their past, as this was also one of Heiss’s goal.

For a better written and better informed piece about this novel, check out Lisa’s review here.

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