Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2022

Jack of Hearts, QX11594 (2022), by Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro

Cultural warning: First Nations readers are advised that this review contains images and names of people who have died.

Jack of Hearts QX11594 is, as its title suggests, a loving tribute to a father who died too young as well as an account of his service during WW2.  Sisters from the Bidjara / Birri Gubba nations in Queensland, Jackie Huggins (b.1956) and Ngaire Jarro set out to find out more about the father who died when they were only small children.  It was an emotional journey retracing his steps on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway where as a POW used as slave labour by the Japanese, his health was ruined.  He was lucky to survive.

Relentless labour on inadequate rations in a deadly tropical environment caused huge losses. By the time the railway was completed in October 1943, at least 2,815 Australians, over 11,000 other Allied prisoners, and perhaps 75,000 romusha were dead.

The prisoners’ sufferings on the railway have come to epitomise the ordeal of Australians in captivity. The railway camps produced many victims, but also heroes who helped others to endure, to survive, or to die with dignity. (Australian War Memorial) 

John Henry (Jack) Huggins III met the love of his life on his return and became a respected member of his community in his home town of Ayr, Queensland.  He died, however, seven years later in 1958 from war-related injuries when he was only 38. Like many, he had not talked about his experience as a POW, and his wife Rita had died in 1996 so it was up to his daughters to research what they could, consulting people who knew him, and exploring records, photographs, letters and defence force records.

Although he died when we were young, (Ngaire was only three, Jackie was two and Johnny just four months old), we do have some memories of him. Sadly, the only memory Ngaire has of our Father is a tall dark man standing in front of her in our little house in Soper Street. (p.23)

Jackie, like other very small children experiencing high levels of emotion, remembers the enormous sadness and trauma around the time our Father became very ill. 

As we never lived far from the hospital and Mum couldn’t drive at that time, she would push us in the pram every night to see Dad at the Ayr Base Hospital.  Sometimes she might get a babysitter for us but believed we should all be there for him.  How we would sit there for hours, talking and comforting him, praying and willing him to get better.  Unfortunately this was to no avail.  On 27 November 1958 he passed. (p.25)

But their mother, who remained devoted to Jack all her life, passed on many precious memories. Ngaire recalls that…

She told me that because I was his first born I was special to him.  He was very protective of me.  I was always the ‘soft’ one.  She constantly told me this story about him.  He would always say to her that if anything were to happen to him, to make sure she looked after me. He would say that Jackie had a hard head (in more ways than one!) and she could take care of herself but I could not.  Dad knew us so well in his short time with us.  It’s so very sad that he was taken away from us in his prime. (p.25)

In 2019 the sisters made a five-day tour of SE Asia for descendants of Aboriginal POWs to visit sites where Jack Huggins had served between 1942 and 1945.  There they were able to access some POW and other military records at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, and learned about other First Nations soldiers also held in captivity by the Japanese and used as slave labour, including some who did not survive such as George Cubby aged 30, from NSW; and Cyril Brockman aged 33, from WA.

Readers of my post Decolonising a Blog…a work in progress #2, Learning about the emergence of Indigenous Life Writing may remember that I consulted Writing Never Arrives Naked, Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia by Penny Van Toorn.  Referring to Auntie Rita (1994) written by Jackie Huggins in collaboration with her mother Rita Huggins (i.e. the wife of Jack Huggins, the subject of Jack of Hearts), Van Toorn noted the difference in style between mother and daughter.  Rita’s tone was intimate, and the readers for whom she was writing were people she knew. It was story telling for entertainment and she omitted distressing elements because she wanted to give enjoyment, and her Aboriginal readership all knew and shared a similarly painful personal history. Jackie OTOH was addressing a wider public in a more formal tone, providing background information that placed her mother’s life in its historical context.  Her purpose was to educate the reader-as-stranger about Australia’s black history.

It seems to me that Jack of Hearts shares this innovative blend of collaborative writing to meld the personal with the political.  It tells of an emotional journey to ‘know’ the father that the authors lost when they were young, and it also educates the Australian public about First Nations service in WW1 and WW2.  Through both these narrative lenses, the authors also compare the life chances of their parents and grandparents: how those who were ‘exempt’ under the Aborigines Protection and Preservation Acts of 1897 had more freedom of movement and opportunities but lost connection with their culture and family members, while those who lived on missions, reserves and settlements under the restrictions of the Act were used as unpaid labour, were often subjected to abuse, and had only rudimentary education, if any at all.

This hybrid approach to history storytelling puts a human face on events and speaks to the emotional toll in researching and telling important stories.

If you are interested to learn more about the complexities of First Nations war service, see my review of Our Mob Served, and for more about the iniquitous Exemption system, see my review of Black, White and Exempt.

Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro are from the Bidjara / Birri Gubba nations in Queensland.

Authors: Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro
Title: Jack of Hearts, QX11594
Cover design: Jo Hunt
Magabala Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781922613127, pbk., 178 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Definitely sounds like a powerful way to tell the story. Lisa.


    • I need to read her other book now, the one she wrote with her mother.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. At school my mates fathers were often returned serviceman, especially of course in towns in soldier settlement areas. They were our scoutleaders, teachers and later, employers, but none of them ever said much. And I don’t suppose there was much you could say about being a POW to children.


    • No, and in some ways, it seems respectful to honour that. But I guess it’s different for everyone.


  3. […] been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but I can see that Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed it last September, so I am not sure how I missed […]


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