Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 29, 2018

The Passengers, by Eleanor Limprecht #BookReview

The Passengers, Eleanor Limprecht’s third novel, offers an interesting insight into a wartime phenomenon that was unique in place and time.  When Australia became a base for US operations during WW2, an influx of friendly young men with generous spending habits transformed the cities that hosted them.  In Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, anxious young local males watched in dismay as the handsome Americans charmed their sweethearts, (resentment at one stage erupting into serious violence in the so-called ‘Battle of Brisbane‘).  Of the million or so Americans who were here, 10,000 stayed on in Australia after 1945 as ‘war husbands’ while 12,000 young women made their way to America as ‘war brides’.

What makes the story of the war brides unique is that Australia was uniquely insular in those days.  It was (still is!) a long way from anywhere, and travel was prohibitively expensive.  Whereas today Australians are great long-haul travellers and at any time about a million of us are living and working overseas, back then a journey by sea took weeks and plane travel was out of the question for nearly everyone.  Australia’s war brides were unlike women from the UK who could slip across the Channel to experience ‘being abroad’ and ‘foreign travel’ in Europe – where an extensive rail network brought a diversity of cultures within easy and potentially affordable reach.  For Australians, it wasn’t commonplace to have friends and relations living and working anywhere in the British Empire – from Africa to India to Southeast Asia.  (One side of my quite ordinary British-born family produced a hospital matron and a colonial administrator in India during the 1920s, and as English children in the 1950s we did not think this at all exotic, it was just somewhere on the pink bits of the world map).  But until the arrival of jet aircraft, most Australians could expect to live and die in Australia without ever setting foot outside it.

So for young women to travel alone to a place they knew only from Hollywood movies, to be reunited with a whirlwind romance was more than an adventure.  It was a leap into the unknown in more ways than one.

Limprecht’s portrayal of the US war bride is perceptive and compelling.  Sarah’s story starts on a hardscrabble dairy farm in New South Wales, where she struggles to come to terms with her parents’ unsatisfactory marriage and eventually takes advantage of wartime employment opportunities to escape to Sydney.  There she meets a US serviceman called Jim, and she succumbs to the pressure to marry him on the eve of his departure for New Guinea.  In 1946 when the war is over, the US provides free passage aboard the USS Mariposa for Sarah and numerous other war brides and their children, so she makes the journey to small town America to start a new life. Through Sarah, Limprecht captures the doubts and fears of the women on the ship: the wrench about leaving her family (one of whom is still missing-in-action); the realisation that she is leaving everything she knows and may never see it again; and a dawning awareness that the similarities between cultures are superficial and that her Australian accent may not even be understood.

When her husband dies, Sarah in her old age is accompanied back home to Australia on a cruise ship by her granddaughter Hannah, and it is through this device that Sarah tells her story with its surprising twists and turns.  As the ship ploughs through the Pacific Sarah tells the engaging story of a different world: nostalgia for life on a struggling dairy farm; the shock of having to move to slum-conditions in Sydney; her efforts to upskill so that she can get work; the fun of socialising in wartime Sydney; and the overwhelming urge for an independent life because she despises her father.  The journey en route to America is rich with detail as she gets to know some of the other women (and a handsome young officer) and then there is the reality of life with an injured ex-serviceman and his sour family.  Sarah is a born storyteller and her narrative is fascinating.

Hannah’s story, however, seems a bit contrived.   Hannah has not led as adventurous a life, and her portrayal as a self-absorbed anorexic (with the condition triggered in the usual way) failed to engage me.  The war bride story is enough, IMO, and it didn’t need a ‘Jodi Piccoult’ social issue to compete with it.

Author: Eleanor Limprecht
Title: The Passengers
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760631338
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: The Passengers

 


Responses

  1. I know authors get enthusiastic about subjects and they have every right to write whatever they like, and readers by and large love historical fiction, but given I can’t read everything, I would much rather read about the 1940s from authors who were there.

  2. I’ve read a couple of war brides stories and find them fascinating. I did have this one in my hands at the book shop the other day but walked away without buying it in the end.

    • I just find the whole idea of disappearing off overseas all on your own totally amazing – at that time, not so much now. The things we do for love!

  3. […] Hill reviewed it on the ANZlitlovers blog, as did Candida Baker in the Sydney Morning Herald here. I particularly […]


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