Empire Day, by Diane Armstrong.
Empire Day, by Dianne Armstrong. ebook
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS
An interesting novel about a neighborhood in Sydney where longtime Australians and newly arrived immigrants fleeing the devastation of World War II share their problems and their joys.
Diane Armstrong has successfully interwoven the stories of a varied group of individuals whose lives overlap along Wattle Street in the Bondi Junction section of Sydney. She follows them for a year, from one Empire Day when the old and new residents are virtual strangers to each other to the next year when all have grown and changed. [Empire Day was an annual celebration of Australia’s membership in the British Empire.]
Among the “New Australians” are the girl, Hania, and her mother who are Polish Jews. Hania has little problem making friends at school, but her mother’s bitterness and grief have created a wall between them. Sala and Szymon are also Polish Jews. Their fragile marriage is threatened by the stresses of living in a new land especially after Sala takes a job. Emil is a Jew from Germany, who lives a silent and secluded life. Lilija and her strict parents are not Jewish, but Latvians, who see the Communists as a greater threat than the Nazis. Interestingly, although Armstrong describes the hatred sometimes directed at the newly arrived refugees or “refros,” she pays more attention to their inner struggles with traumatic wartime losses. Readers not only learn about post-World War II Australia, but also about the atrocities and painful choices of Europeans who survived the war.
Already present in the neighborhood is Kath, a barmaid and a single mother raising four boys alone. Verna Browning is a kind widow with a son, Ted, just starting a career as a journalist. Ted falls in love with the Latvian Lilija, despite her father’s determination to keep them apart. He also becomes involved in investigating Nazis who have slipped into Australia. Miss Maude McNulty is a cranky, old woman, upset not only about the increasing numbers of refuges but also about what she views as the flaws in all her neighbors. Significantly, these long-time Australian have problems that are as bad, if different from those of their new neighbors. And Armstrong does not offer glib answers for any of them.
Armstrong, like Hania, came to Australia from Europe as a child in 1948. While this book is not autobiographical, it is grounded in memories of her early years there. I share her remembrance of the music and the radio shows and the other details that make her book an accurate and lively portrayal of a particular historical moment. Perhaps some Australian readers will recognize her depiction of Sydney in the late 1940s and 1950s. Armstrong’s values of tolerance and compassion also shine through the story. She willing to have her characters ask un-answerable questions about why bad things, like polio, happen to good people. Empire Day was not meant to be an important piece of literature, but it succeeds as compelling historical fiction introducing readers to a time and place few of us knew.
I recommend this book to all readers curious about the various patterns and experiences created by immigrants and about World War II and post-war Australia.