A Rose for the Anzac Boys
It is the year 1915. Margery (Midge) Macpherson is a 17-year-old New Zealand girl attending boarding school in England while her two brothers serve with the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in Turkey and Europe. Midge leaves school to set up a railway canteen in France. She serves refreshments to the endless flow of soldiers returning from the front, relieves the local ambulance driver, and assists at a field hospital. Jackie French does not spare the reader. People die and are injured. But somehow she strikes a balance between the horrors and humanity of war that is appropriate to upper primary lower and secondary readers.
Each chapter is headed by a series of letters. I found myself poring over them, as if they had recently arrived in the post. The letters are written by Midge, civilian relatives, and others serving in military and medical capacities. Through them, we hear the voice of the era with all of its class consciousness, parochialism, hope and despair.
The narrative is framed by two contemporary events: ANZAC Day, 1975, as Lachie prepares to push his Pa’s wheelchair in the Biscuit Creek remembrance parade; and ANZAC Day, 2007, where Lachie is marching as a soldier newly returned from fighting in Afghanistan. These chapters attempt to bridge the past and the present. It was not until halfway through the narrative, however, that I connected Biscuit Creek with Harry, a young Australian soldier Midge was befriending. Or until the final chapter, that I understood Lachie to be a descendant of Harry and Midge. I was disappointed to find the adult Lachie in military uniform. To remember the ‘war to end wars,’ was no such thing. But that is Jackie French’s triumph, the final thrust of her novel. She delivers it powerfully.