'The Daughters of Mars': Thomas Keneally's sweeping tale of World War I

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At an age in which most authors are content to write tedious memoirs, Australian Thomas Keneally has summoned all of his ample talent to write a sweeping novel of World War I.

In "The Daughters of Mars," the 78-year-old Mr. Keneally shows the reader the awful price of war. He depicts the aftermath of several World War I battles. He does this through the eyes of two military nurses.

Mr. Keneally has dealt with war in several of his other books. In his best known book, "Schindler's List" (the book's original title was "Schindler's Ark"), he told how a German businessman saved more than 1,000 Polish Jews from the Holocaust. In his book "Confederates," he wove a Civil War novel around the exploits of Stonewall Jackson.


By Thomas Keneally.
Atria Books ($28).

In "The Daughters of Mars," Mr. Keneally gives the reader the First World War as seen through the eyes of Australian sisters Naomi and Sally Durance. In 1915, they begin their military service, working as nurses in places ranging from Gallipoli to the Western Front.

The two sisters are heading off as combat nurses after just having experienced an ordeal of their own. Their mother recently died after a long battle with cancer. The Durance sisters carry a substantial amount of guilt about things which occurred shortly before her death.

With little preparation about what to expect, they then find themselves in the middle of medical wards chock full of injured soldiers. Mr. Keneally's description of the wounds the girls encounter is as good or better than any photograph or film that purports to tell us about war.

Men sometimes even younger than the Durance sisters are carried into the wards on stretchers, often with body parts ripped off by shells or mortar.

"Sally saw another through and through wound ... and edging from it an unexpected snake of the stomach lining named omentum, yellow amidst blood, lacy and frayed, hanging out of the slashed gut," Mr. Keneally writes.

The violence is indiscriminate, not stopping at just the combatants. Several of the Durance sisters' co-workers fall victim to it one way or another. One colleague is raped. Another is confined to a special "rest ward" for those with battle fatigue. Yet another nurse loses a leg to amputation, leaving her with her own medical battle of learning to walk with a prosthetic leg.

Mr. Keneally's decision to have his main characters serve as healers instead of combatants is not random. In many ways, the doctors and nurses are little more than a temporary barricade against an unceasing tide of destruction. Some of the wounded die, others are mended and sent home. Still others are healed.

It doesn't take long for Naomi and Sally to understand what happens once mended fighters are back on their feet. "They would be taken by ambulance to the port of Rouen for shipment to England. The recovered -- of course -- went in the other direction, back to the threshing machine."

Throughout the annals of war literature, writers strive to give some sense of what goes on in the battlefield. "The Daughters of Mars" shows us the personal cost soldiers pay, as their bloody uniforms are cut away by surgeons to reveal gaping fissures in their once healthy bodies.

Sally and Naomi eventually become accustomed, but not inured, to the crippling wounds they see day after day. This constant exposure gives them a shared sense of duty and responsibility. "The Daughters of Mars" is a traveling newsreel for many of the battles of World War I. The Durance sisters are more than capable narrators of this documentary. Following them for 528 pages leaves the reader aware of the price that was paid before the armistice was finally signed in 1918.


Steve Novak is a freelance writer living in Cleveland (theclev_reviews@yahoo.com).


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