Thomas Keneally has written a memorable novel, Shame and the Captives. Set in Australia, away from the fighting during World War II, this novel focuses on prisoners of war held in a prison camp in Australia, as well as some Australians who have husbands and sons held in Axis prisoner of war camps. Apparently some Japanese prisoners of war actually did break out of their Australian prison camp during World War II, and this is a fictionalized account of that break out. As always Keneally focuses on what his characters are feeling and why they are doing what they do, and there are a wealth of personalities in play. The Japanese prisoners can scarcely believe they have been captured instead of killed, and basically feel their lives are over. Prisoners from Korea and Italy are more stoic about their present circumstances and ultimately more optimistic that they will have a future. Alice, the major female character is a young Australian bride whose husband went to war and was soon captured. She doesn’t know what to feel and is trying to find her way. The Australian officers running the camp seem uncomfortable with their situation and take an instant dislike to each other. Their hostility to each other is more intense than any feelings they might have toward their prisoners.
This book presents an odd juxtaposition of characters in an unfamiliar (to me) setting. People are doing their jobs and are careful to treat the prisoners carefully for a number of reasons: the prison officials in this book aren’t motivated by cruelty, they are acutely aware of the Red Cross’s requirements and they are particularly motivated to treat their Japanese prisoners well so that their own sons held in captivity won’t face reprisals. This makes for a very interesting book showing aspects of the “War at Home” that aren’t frequently addressed.
Finally, it is impossible to write about Thomas Keneally and a fictionalized novel based on wartime events without mentioning his epic novel Schindler’s List. To see the movie Schindler’s List is to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and to recognize some of the heroic rescuers. To read the book, is to delve into why Oskar Schindler, of all unlikely people, was moved to take such imaginative and heroic actions. And then there is the next question, if Schindler did it, why were so few others similarly motivated. All this is by way of saying that if you haven’t read Schindler’s List, you really need to do that.