Shame and the Captives

Written by Thomas Keneally
Review by Jeff Westerhoff

In August 1944, the Second World War in the Pacific is winding down. In Australia, prison camps house enemy combatants. One of the camps, Gawell POW camp, is divided into four compounds: Compound A for the Italian prisoners; Compound B, the Japanese officers, along with Taiwanese, Koreans and Indonesians; Compound C for the Japanese prisoners; and Compound D was the second Italian Compound.

Alice Herman lives on her father-in-law’s farm about three miles from the camp. Her husband is a prisoner of war in Europe. Colonel Ewan Abercore is the camp commander, while Major Bernard Suttor commands Compound C. The camp commanders try to provide the prisoners with proper incarceration according to the Geneva Convention.

The Japanese prisoners in Compound C feel shame because of their imprisonment and would rather have died prior to capture. Many Italians are sent to local farms to live and help the farm owners. Alice is a recipient of one of the Italian prisoners. Lonely since her husband’s capture, she is sexually drawn to the young Italian. Meanwhile, the Japanese, led by several leaders, plan to escape the prison or, preferably, die trying.

This is historical writing at its best. The details of life in both the prison camp and the civilian/military personnel in Gawell are based upon research into a similar prison break elsewhere during the war. This is a must-read for those who enjoy well-researched and atmospheric novels of World War II. The reader can feel the shame felt by the Japanese prisoners, and their preference for a merciless death to the humiliation of imprisonment. An exceptional story, highly recommended.