Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2022

Corporal Hitler’s Pistol, by Tom Keneally

From its curious title to the arresting cover design, Tom Keneally’s latest novel is sure to attract attention.  The cover of Corporal Hitler’s Pistol features Smith Street in Kempsey (a real town in the Mid North Coast region of New South Wales), where the story is mostly set, and the image comes from the NSW State Archives where you can see that the (undated) original does not have that striking image of a smartly dressed woman standing all alone in a road largely empty of cars.  The novel is set in the interwar years, and that superimposed image alludes to Florence (Flo) Honeywood, wife of the eminent master builder Burley Honeywood.

It is 1933 as the Depression is starting to impact on the fortunes of many, when Flo makes an unpalatable discovery.  In town, she sees a dark-skinned boy called Eddie Kelly who bears a marked resemblance to her husband, and she is outraged.  Not just by Burley’s adultery, and not just because it both pre-and post-dated their marriage, but also because she learns that Burley is not the only townsman who visits Burnt Bridge looking for skirt whether the Aboriginal women agree to it or not.  Flo is livid with Burley, but she is also outraged that the child’s prospects are so different from Burley’s other children.  In her ham-fisted but courageous way, she barges past the racism of the shop and the school and tries to kit him out in school uniform for the local school and makes plans to send him to the same prestigious school in Sydney that her son goes to.  She does not understand that these are not her decisions to make, and her actions bewilder Eddie’s Aboriginal guardian but she is motivated by a desire to improve his life (as she judges it).  In the process she scandalises the town by taking coffee with Eddie Kelly’s aunt Alice in the local café, and what’s more, she sets up a meeting with Alice under the auspices of Chicken Dalton, the openly gay pianist at the local picture theatre.

Flo and her shocking troubles when Burley reacts to her assertive demand for a divorce is one strand in a many layered novel.  Chapters alternate between her story, and that of WW1 veteran Bert Webber who has a very public breakdown at the Victoria Cinema, and the backstory of Bert’s farmhand Johnny Costigan in County Kerry during the Terror Month of 1923.  It was a time of brutal violence when Irishmen turned on each other in the civil war between the new Free State government and the Anti-Treaty IRA.  (As with most events in Irish history, it’s more complicated than this, see Wikipedia if you are interested to know more.)  It takes a while before the strands of the story come together, and TBH it is a bit confusing in the beginning, but when the links between them emerge, the book becomes unputdownable and I romped through it in just over a day.

Through these interwoven strands, Keneally explores relationships between Black and White Australians, the shameful treatment of homosexuality, and the experience of WW1 veterans experiencing PTSD in an era when treatment was primitive.  The novel reveals the egalitarianism of Australia as a sham, where mateship among men and conviviality among women excludes others on the basis of class, gender, race, sexuality and sectarianism.  Or just not conforming to expectations, as Flo suddenly refuses to do.  As Bert Webber’s son Christian learns, the justice system is easily perverted when the town seeks a culprit for the murder of Johnny Costigan while law and medicine conspire together to thwart Flo’s journey to independence.

The complexity of relationships in this country town is rendered perfectly in this excerpt where Flo sets off to Cattleford’s Lawyers of Belgrave Street, not in the nice little car that made other women admire Burley for his generosity.  Even as she sets off like an avenging angel with righteous indignation in her sails, she can’t withhold her snobbery or sectarianism:

She was ready at last and fastened her hat, for it was autumn and blowy, and took off to cross the bridge.  Let them see her walking like one of Barsby’s shopgirls.

All was sadness that had been light.  This side of the river, the broad concourse of Rudder Street where goods were unloaded from coastal steamers, though not as many since the railway came just before her marriage.  Now they had put the new war memorial there.  The ghosts of young men were more numerous than passers-by.  Below, on the river-bank, settlers had planted weeping willows from England to lean forward to dangle branches so appealingly in the green fast water.  The big river was muscular, as she thought of it, deep with sinews of current.  When it flooded, it ran like a mad bailiff through the centre of town between West and Central, reclaiming flimsy structures and invading polite ones to dump its mud.  People over there in Central and West put their houses on stilts and built them on higher ground, but no householder considered himself immune if the river, instead of enclosing the town in a beautiful bow, decided to break levees and run straight.

And, though she lived in East, high and safe above the torrent, now the flood has risen in her and was violating all the rooms.

The Harp of Erin store was on her left, yokels lounging on its veranda.  She did not use The Harp, since they were Irish.  Burley said it well: ‘We only run up bills with other Protestants.’ (p.123)

Vengeance is the dark heart of this novel.  Among the human failings which are characteristic of Keneally’s fiction, there is kindness, and good humour, generosity and courage.  But the cold and vicious hatred of the avengers is shocking…

Author: Tom Keneally
Title: Corporal Hitler’s Pistol
Cover design by James Rendall
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2021
ISBN: 9781760893224, pbk., 334 pages


Responses

  1. Straight onto my reading list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you know Kempsey, Jennifer? It’s usually a plus when you know a town well…

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      • I’ve been through Kempsey a couple of times but can’t claim to know it well.

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        • I’ve been through it once, I think, but a long time ago. I hope it’s still got some of its lovely old buildings.

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  2. Sounds brilliant.

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    • Yes, I like Keneally, and he’s got such good grasp of Australian history, it always adds to his stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve never been let down by him before.

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        • He’s astonishing… I haven’t got the book at hand now, but there was a list of all his books at the front of it, and it took up the whole page. The range of topics and issues he’s written about it is amazing, no wonder they call him the Balzac of Australia.

          Are you still recuperating? Taking it easy?

          Liked by 1 person

          • The first book of his that I read (and was awed by) was The Great Shame, about the Irish Famine, an absolutely massive book. And then I went on to read Schindler’s Arc. He is so impressive and so readable.
            I am still taking it easy, not eager to repeat the overdoing it mistake of the weekend just gone. Back at work, but half day shifts which are more manageable than full days. Still tire so easily.

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            • It sounds very difficult. I hope things improve soon…

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Thomas Keneally could have been a writer, but he was born to give sermons and every year he comes up with a new one on all the latest fashionable topics. I agree he tells good stories but the sermonising and the abandonment of writing for story telling lost me years ago.

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    • Nothing wrong with telling a good story, IMO, and there’s some fine writing in this one.
      Re sermons: I think that Flo is a character who discovers that the wrong sermons were being delivered in her time and place…

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  4. Goodness, that does sound like a powerful read Lisa – and it certainly does seem to shine a very bright and unforgiving light on the past.

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    • And tells a little-known story about the hostilities between the Irish Free State and those who were only prepared to accept independence for the whole island.
      I think many of us are holding our collective breaths that the peace will hold despite Brexit…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hope so – I’m old enough to remember hearing about the Troubles on the TV when I was little and I would hate to go back to those times.

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        • The remnants of my family were still alive back then and we were always worried about them on the Tube.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s a great excerpt: easy to see what a satisfying read this would be!

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    • Yes, I love that image of a ‘mad bailiff’ running through the town…

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  6. I love Kenneally’s work, so I was excited to read this one. I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others, but still a great read.

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    • Yes, I’d agree with that…
      But I find him very reliable when I’ve had enough of cynicism and violence, so Corporal Hitler’s Pistol was just right after reading The Golden Legend.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I find Keneally is hit & miss for me. The last hit was Daughters of Mars (also set initially in Kempsey). But he is a lovely man. I met him at a civic function in Mudgee many years ago…I think a time capsule had been opened and a new one was laid down, with a group photo of everyone present.

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    • What fun! I’d love to be there when a time capsule gets opened… but I’ve always been so disappointed by the contents of what was put into it when it was done at two of the schools I taught at.

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