By Lynn Willoughby
The Long Road to the Deep North ~ Richard Flanagan
I have been whining to family, friends and everyone else who doesn’t want to listen, that I haven’t read a REALLY good book in awhile. Well, this one shut me up!!
This historical novel spans the life of Dorrigo Evans and the people he encounters in his adult life. It is grim, it is graphic, it is a love story, a war story, a story of loneliness and compromise. It is complex and invasive. I found a whole study seminar on it, with chapter by chapter notes and a quiz at the end! I loved, loved, loved the ending.
Dorrigo is a young Australian surgeon who is on active duty at the start of World War II, when he is captured and held as a Japanese Prisoner of War. The camp where he is held is in Burma, guarded by Koreans and manned by Japanese soldiers. As the highest ranked Australian officer, Dorrigo is the Commanding Officer for the 700 or so interned men (think The Bridge on the River Kwai). These men are driven by any means to build the Burma-Siam railroad. English engineers had already said it was an impossible feat because of the dense teak and bamboo forests, tropical monsoons, huge rocky ravines and mountains, plus the never ending heat. However, these starving, cholera and dysentery ridden, ulcerated, sleep deprived, lice infested, barefoot, naked men completed it in just fifteen months!
Dorrigo feels personal responsibility for the well being of all the prisoners and never stops demanding more food, medical supplies, boots and blankets. Malaria, emergency surgeries, suppurating tropical ulcers, cholera and dysentery are among the challenges he faces. Theft and ingenuity lead to many creative solutions including showers, possible surgeries, contraband food and entertainment to combat the ever present depression, exhaustion and boredom.
The harsh and demeaning treatment, daily beatings and total lack of compassion for the “railroad slaves” is difficult for the prisoners (and we the readers) to understand. But the commradery, small kindnesses, sharing bits of food, helping a fellow slave walk to the worksite or the Australian cook who stays every night until the last straggler has stumbled or crawled back to camp to get his small rice ball that is the evening meal, all help morale.
Like Dorrigo, Jimmy Bigelow – the trumpeter who DAILY plays “The Last Post“, for a single or more often a mass funeral, feels a personal pride in doing what he can for each prisoner who dies.
The artist who sketches the horrors of the camp is compulsive, in that he cannot unsee what he has reproduced. He draws likenesses of the Japanese soldiers which he trades for a duck egg. Like Jimmy’s trumpet, one of these sketches will resurface much later after the war has ended.
And the war does end. Dorrigo believes that his love and soul mate, Amy, has died in a pub explosion, so he marries Ella when he eventually returns to Australia. It is an uneasy marriage and Dorrigo spends years in illicit affairs, seeking some way to feel alive. He becomes a renowned surgeon, a well known philanthropist and public speaker for all POWs, but he feels his whole life has been a fraud.
Several of the Japanese soldiers and Korean guards are tried as war criminals and hanged. We see life through their eyes – the Korean who only ever wanted his pay cheque of 50 yen and was forced to do unspeakable acts. The camp commander who goes into hiding and spends the remainder of his years trying to reconcile himself with his crimes by convincing himself it was all for the good of the Emperor. His scorn that anyone would allow himself to be taken prisoner in the first place, never abates. His daughters see him as a man who will not kill a mosquito, but he knows what he has done as a soldier. He comes to believe it was all lies – the Chinese beheadings, the cruelty, brutality and starvation at the camps.
I know this review is long, but the book is so very complex with locations in the Thai jungle, to a Japanese snow festival, from Changi prison in Singapore to a beachside hotel in Australia. What I especially liked are the stories of the men in old age. Jimmy Bigelow -“He worked at habits and friendship seeing in them the only alternative to what he felt the alternative was.” His daughter sells a beat up, dirty trumpet for $5 at a garage sale. Nakamura – who takes meals to the elderly, Jack Rabbits’ wife who is unable to look at his sketchbook and when burning it sets the entire countryside on fire, Dorrigo and Ella’s life together, Amy’s life, all are ultimately stories of what war does to people, and even though a war ends, the wounds are not necessarily healed.
As Dorrigo is dying he is thinking “…in a far away jungle that has long since been cleared, in a country called Siam that no longer existed, a man who no longer lived had finally fallen asleep.”
– Gould’s Book of Fish
………and several others both fiction and non-fiction
During World War II the Germans killed 6 million Jews, and 20 million Russians; the Japanese slaughtered as many as 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese and at least 23 million ethnic Chinese. The death rate for Allied POWs held by the Japanese was 30%