I have to admit that I do sometimes go mad and suddenly devour all the books on my shelves written by the same author. This time I have been a little selective and settled on writing about only four of about sixteen, there will probably be more to come on this same author since he is one of my favourites.
Thomas Keneally published his first book in 1964. Since then there have been a further twenty-five novels, several non fiction and at least two books for young children. I think I first caught up when The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, all those years ago they didn’t even publish the longlist. Keneally has been on the shortlist often enough since, with Confederates, Gossip from the Forest and Schindler’s Ark, for which book he finally won the prize – not without controversy since many people said that it was not in the strictest sense of the word, a novel. Of course it was a novel, and is now a film – Schindler’s List. Since then Keneally has written another book on that subject, quite definitely non-fiction, called Searching for Schindler.
I am saving Gossip from the Forest and Daughters of Mars for a future First World War blog, expect several more in the next few years.
What Thomas Keneally does in fiction is to take a true story, disintegrate it and reconstruct it so that we can understand the historical basis from an intimate, unusual perspective. Sometimes, using an historical background like The American Civil War (Confederates), sometimes using immigration/deportation into Australia as the background, (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Playmaker and others) and sometimes using a true story and completely fictionalising it (Australian Japanese POW camps and Shame and the Captives).
Whatever he does, we come away enlightened, informed and better equipped for the next book we might read on the same subject. Confederates, for example, led me back to The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and forward to Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, not to mention Margaret Mitchell, Louisa M Alcott and several others. Keneally wrote Confederates because while staying and travelling around America he kept coming on to plaques commemorating sites of great battles and this intrigued him enough to research some of these places and the blood spilled there. He finally lights upon Antietam (Sharpsburg) and we follow the Shenandoah Volunteers and Tom Stonewall Jackson up to this cataclysm. Usaph Bumpass, Decatur Cate, little Joe Nunnally and all the rest: we march, sleep, eat, fight with them all right to the moment of their dying; truly a remarkable and defining experience.
The same sort of structure occurs in The People’s Train, we follow in the footsteps of Artem Samsurov (based on an escaped Russian prisoner, Artem Sergeiv) who arrives in Brisbane in 1911, but does not find the Socialist paradise he is hoping for; a paradise of another kind awaits him. But he never loses his belief that one day the people will rise up and the revolution will come. When in 1917 it does, with two friends. Paddy Dykes, a journalist and an Australian miner, he sets off again for Russia to join in the fray. Thomas Keneally often has a journalist along with the hero, in Confederates it was The Honourable Horace Searcy a writer for The Times newspaper in London, who doubles as a spy but saved his neck by being British.
Shame and the Captives leaps forward to the Second World War. After the attack on Darwin, a large prisoner of war camp was set up in Cowra, in this novel the site is called Gawell and the inmates are a mixture of Italians, Koreans and the Japanese. The people and events this book describes are fiction but Thomas Keneally says this about his decision:
The truth is, though, that I have not created exactly the set of events that occurred in Cowra during the outbreak of 4-5 August 1944. I did not want to offend those who lived through that night, and the days before and after, and though – above all – I have tried to read as exactly as I can the cultures of both sides to the calamity, this is not what is called a roman a clef, a novel in which every character is meant to stand for and reflect on a real human, living or dead. My characters are not designed to reflect any virtues, sins, follies, fevers and acts of courage evident in any of the real actors in the Cowra outbreak. The details we have are not sufficient to fill out all the characters, in any case. And combining and enlarging details is something a novelist has to do – it’s part of the job. It can be apologies for, but not avoided.
This it has to be said, may have been written specifically about Shame and the Captives, but it pretty much applies to every historical novel written by Thomas Keneally – combination and enlargement. Brilliant.
As to his non-fiction – The Great Shame is a very long book about the Irish! Keneallys, one and all, must have sprung from an Irish landscape, I think. This masterly book, the forensic research sits lightly on the text, covers around eighty years of Irish history principally in the nineteenth century, including the infamous potato famine; the emigrations and the political deportations which drove or dragged people from the land of their forebears across the world to Australia. One of the characters in this book appears again in another: Thomas Francis Meagher made a spectacular escape from the penal colony which led to a glittering career as an orator and eventually a Union General in the American Civil War fighting against our Shenandoah Volunteers in the novel Confederates. In The Great Shame we meet all sorts of people, men and women, most especially the transportation-widowed and through them we meet the future Lady Wilde, mother of the more famous, Oscar who worked for and with Irish political prisoners. We are brought into an intimate understanding of the conflicting emotions: the desperation and also the sense of adventure – however inflicted and frightening.