From Mars to Schindler and Back: Where Reading Takes Us

Naomi appeared, her eyes stark ovals. Though newly washed, Sally herself went to her and they embraced with a fierceness impossible to imagine somewhere normal–in some place where shared crimes counted. It has taken horror, Sally thought, to make us sisters.

*******

I was reading a Thomas Keneally (who wrote the book that inspired Schindler’s List) novel, The Daughters of Mars, and so a blurb on Yahoo half-caught my eye—something about Schindler’s death.

“Hey,” I said to my son, James, who, fascinated by the story, has watched the film Schindler’s List several times, “I see Schindler died!  He was a hundred and something. What a life!”

James looked at me, puzzled. “I thought Schindler died long ago,” he said.

Of course, he was right; it was not Oskar Schindler who died this week. That great man died on October 9th, 1974, and was buried, according to his wish, in Jerusalem.

No, it was another great man, Sir Nicholas Winton, who passed on July 1st. He was called “Britain’s Schindler,” for the 669 children he rescued from the Nazis in 1939–children of Czechoslovakian Jews who were destined for the concentration camps.  Sir Winton arranged for trains to take the children to Britain; he arranged for foster homes once those children arrived.  If you consider the survivors, and the children and grandchildren of those survivors, notes The Daily Mail (dailymail.com, retrieved 7/1/15), Winton’s acts saved over 6,000 lives.  To date.

Little known stories of quietly heroic people.  That seems to be a fascination for Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, whose novel, Schindler’s Ark (1982), became the basis for the Schindler’s List movie.  The novel won a Booker Prize, and its title was changed to match the film’s.  Keneally later wrote a memoir, Searching for Schindler (published 2007).

I have not read those books yet, but after reading Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars, they are prominent on my to-read list. (This is the trail blazed by picking up a book and reading a new author–connections and branchings out and new words and worlds to pursue, new thoughts and facts and histories with which to become acquainted. Books are doors, and sometimes they open into broad and alluring pathways; I can’t help but follow. Although once in a while,–a very rare occurrence, for sure– I open the door and find nothing but a bricked up wall.)

Sally and Naomi Durance are quiet heroes in Daughters–they  are the two women whose lives are shaped by the reality of World War One.  Both nurses–nursing, Sally tells us, was one of the few escape hatches for girls from her remote area (the Macleay Valley) in eastern Australia.  Sally was the younger sister.  Naomi found the escape hatch first; she qualified as a nurse and moved to Sydney. Sally thought her sister’s life there very independent, very glamorous. The youngest daughter, Sally stayed at home, caring for her stalwart mother, whose cancer grew and invaded.

Finally, the cancer became so bad even Naomi was called home; the two girls nursed their mother, consoled their father.  And one day, on Naomi’s watch, the mother slipped away. Sally, who had been stockpiling morphine and steeling herself to ‘help’ her mother when the time came, looked for the stash and discovered it gone.  She believed then that she and her sisters were co-murderers. She began to question her own, and Naomi’s motives, asking herself if they acted in compassion or in exhausted self interest. Home became a desperate place to live.

And so both sisters applied to be military nurses.  In her heart, Sally was pretty sure that Naomi would be chosen and she, rejected. But, of course, they were both chosen, and the story is their story of nursing during World War I.

The sisters nurse on board a floating hospital in the Mediterranean; when that is sunk, they move on to land-bound sites in Europe.  The things they see, the privations they endure, and the truths they learn, shape them.  Each meets the man who will love her and change her life completely.

In this book, Keneally shows us bravery and patriotism, war at its ugly worst, and people at their tightly-stretched best.  There are a lot of ways–a myriad of ways–that love can be expressed.  We see hundreds of those expressions here, amid gore and flies and stench and worse.  We are shown people rising into their own nobility.

The Daughters of Mars is a good book. It’s not a light book–maybe not a beach book, but it’s one I’m very glad I read.  One hundred years ago, the world was living through the Durance daughters’ war; the United States was struggling to avoid becoming entangled in it; and chemical warfare had its sad launch.  And men and women toiled and fought and sacrificed, and some survived.  Some, you could say, triumphed, although their struggle did not, as they’d hoped, end all wars.

Keneally’s account, I think, with its avoidance of battle scenes and its emphasis on their aftermaths, brings the War to life in a way that other battle-linked books might not.It makes me realized the cost and pain of regular people, the ripple effect of war. This is a book worth reading.

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