‘The war had changed almost every single thing about Flora’s life and who she was. It had liberated her from her expectations about what a woman should desire for herself and for her own life.’
Victoria Purman’s The Land Girls is a story of three women who strike out and leave home to do their bit for the thousands of young Australian men away fighting WWII. At a time when women only ever left home to get married, it is a radical act.
The curtain on the story goes up in December, 1942. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbour and made it into Sydney Harbour. A far-off conflict has arrived on our doorstep. In Melbourne, John Atkins has just been accused of being a coward for not enlisting. His sister Flora is furious. Her other brother Frank is already away fighting and John hasn’t enlisted because he can’t – he’s deaf in one ear due to an illness.
A fired-up Flora casts her knitting needles aside – she’s been making endless numbers of socks for the troops – and leaves the drudgery of her office job to join the Land Girls, one of the thousands of women who left the cities to work on farms and orchards and do the work once done by men.
In Sydney, 17-year-old Betty, a naïve young shopgirl whose lifelong best friend and would-be sweetheart has gone off to war, joins the Australian Women’s Land Army without really knowing what she’s in for. In Adelaide, society girl Lilian whose new love has just left to train as an airman, also signs up to become a land girl, partly to escape her suffocating family.
Remember, this is a time of radio, Bing Crosby, bitter-sweet romance and letter-writing, of starched politeness, hypocrisy and patriotism, all richly described in The Land Girls. Names like John, Peter and Margaret are popular. Women are expected to work briefly before taking on marriage and motherhood as a full-time job: ‘A girl unmarried at twenty-one was suspect, at twenty-five unfortunate, and at thirty just sad.’
Of course Flora (my favourite character), Betty or Lilian don’t realise that their new life is not only fresh country air, a few chooks and pretty vistas and having to do backbreaking, dirty and sometimes dangerous work (snakes, eek!) from dawn till dusk in extreme temperatures comes as a shock. On top of that, they’re far away from family and home comforts (some have to sleep on straw pallets).
The arrival of the weekly post is a huge event. With telephones still rare, letters are a vital link not only between families and the boys away fighting, but for the land girls desperate to hear news from home. (Made me nostalgic for the hand-written letter with all its mistakes and crossings-outs, tea stains and… personality).
Moments of great sadness and grief, as well as moments of pure, radiant joy, unfold in this gentle, charming tale and reading it is a cosy experience, a bit like pulling up a soft doona and settling in on a cold winter’s day.
The lives of the three women steer all the action as the war rages on and friendships they strike up help stem the worries and the tears. Watching them evolve from protected species to independent women open to life’s many possibilities, is of particular pleasure.
It is the spirit of this, along with the genuine heartfelt emotion and the lovely reimagining of the way we once were, that makes The Land Girls such a rich and rewarding read. As former PM Julia Gillard once said, the life we’re privileged to lead now is only possible because women of courage – like Flora, Betty and Lilian – were there first.
Victoria Purman is a multi-published, award-nominated, Amazon Kindle-bestselling author. She has worked in and around the Adelaide media for nearly thirty years as an ABC television and radio journalist, a speechwriter to a premier, political adviser, editor, media adviser and private-sector communications consultant. She is a regular guest at writers’ festivals, has been nominated for a number of readers choice awards and was a judge in the fiction category for the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. Her most recent novels are The Three Miss Allens, published in 2016, The Last of the Bonegilla Girls (2018) and The Land Girls (2019).
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