Nurses get so much bad press these days that it’s a rare pleasure to be reminded of their many virtues. Heroism is the right description for what so many nurses do, day in day out – and never more so than in wartime, as shown in Thomas Keneally’s celebrated novel, The Daughters of Mars.
Its setting is World War I and its two central characters are young nurses, sisters who leave their family farm in New South Wales for Egypt, Gallipoli and France. This gripping epic combines grand themes with detailed psychological portraits of Naomi and Sally Durance and their colleagues in the military and civilian medical services. In Keneally’s words, he tries to render the human and intimate moments among the thunder and fury, and he succeeds admirably.
The flow of books, films and TV dramas acknowledging next year’s centenary of the war’s outbreak is well under way. We may think we know what it was like, but this tale has a new twist. This Australian author, by telling the story through a nursing lens and from a colonial perspective, sheds new light on both past and present.
As you might expect from a writer whose Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s Ark became an astonishing film, this is a wonderful book - on so many levels. The hardback is a massive 520 pages but I raced through and didn’t want it to end. It is an extraordinary feat of imagination, conveying vividly what it was like to care for the endless wave of horribly wounded, diseased, gassed and dying soldiers.
When I met Tom at the Charleston literary festival, he told me how the idea was sparked by reading Australian and British nurses’ war journals and letters. He came across them while researching a social history of Australia, was surprised and moved by what he read, and decided, ‘It was too interesting not to write about.’ He was particularly struck by how poorly the nurses were treated. ‘They really were angels of mercy, junior madonnas, bossed around by the hierarchy – it was the wounded men who loved them,’ he says.
In one telling episode, the nurses are billeted on the Aegean island of Lemnos to care for the Gallipoli survivors. With the collusion of senior men in the medical and military chains of command, they are treated like skivvies, forced to do domestic work, forbidden to use their nursing skills, and verbally and physically abused. A nurse raped by an orderly is sent to a mental hospital to hush it up. Standing up to authority, feisty Naomi becomes their leader.
The impeccably researched detail of what the clearing stations and tented wards were like is one of the book’s highlights. You can really imagine yourself there, using instruments and medicines that we now consider archaic, nursing young men and boys with appalling injuries or ravaged by sexually transmitted diseases and fevers, with few analgesics or anaesthetics and no antibiotics. The nurses worked 24-hour shifts in converted houses or primitive tents, sometimes under fire.
They paid a heavy emotional and physical cost. These nurses, many of them also very young, are ‘crushed under the wheels of Mars’, their lives changed forever. Their brave letters and memoirs show how tough they were, but also how traumatized. Like most returning combatants, when they got home they could not speak of their experiences.
Tom was intrigued by what the nurses’ memoirs said about their battle for recognition and status. ‘It is fascinating when women become stroppy and determined in a male-dominated world’, he says. ‘Their struggle was at the core of feminism at the time’ - and continues to this day. A staunch, plain-speaking feminist at the age of 77, ‘I am amazed that men have got away for so long with being the master gender,’ he says.
Some insights come from his family. For advice and fact-checking he called on two nurses - his wife Judy and sister-in-law Jane, to whom he dedicated the book - and his late brother Dr John Keneally, a distinguished anaesthetist and medical historian.
He has also been nursed in hospital himself, and is angered by the bad press. ‘The nurse’s status is still uncertain, and the angels/bitches dichotomy will probably get worse as medicine becomes more complicated and governments are not convinced of the need for a national health service,’ he told the Charleston festival audience.
The novel is a refreshing change from the usual nursing stereotypes. It portrays heroism with no whiff of sentimentality, but plenty of strong feeling. It exemplifies Keneally’s long-standing preoccupation with putting ordinary people in extraordinary dilemmas. That’s nurses, in a nutshell – ordinary people called on to do extraordinary things – and it sometimes makes them heroes, whatever the papers say.
Reviewed in Nursing Standard, 25 September 2013, 28:4, 28-9