Stars in the Night, by Clare Rhoden: A story of enduring love

1970 in suburban Melbourne: ‘That was how it happened, thought Harry, feeling the memories rise; they were never far away .. Trusting you to remember, trusting you to do something about it. As if you could fix things, mend the dead, put the world back the way it was.’

And so we go back into Harry’s memories, into the seared experiences that gave him nightmares for decades, back to the day in 1917 when Harry cannot find his foster brother Eddie. Harry searches. He crawls out of the Passchendaele mud in no-man’s land searching for him. He looks into dugouts and stumbles down communication trenches and he asks at Casualty Clearing Stations. Fifty years later his granddaughter comes upon an old notebook in the attic and asks him,”Who is Eddie?”

The Stars In The Night is a story of love. Nora waits for Harry but he harbours fears whether she can accept him after what he has been through. Eddie hopes for a life with Claudelle. It is a story too of love between men, brothers-in-arms, Harry and Eddie, Wallis, Hartigan, Alex. From Gallipoli to Flanders the war thunders over all of them like the endless numbing artillery barrages. But it does not end for them when the guns fall silent.

We only recently have begun to speak openly of PTSD and try to understand that it messes people up for a long time. Harry survives wounds and sickness and comes home, but in dreams he returns to no-mans’ land, still trying to rescue mates. The women have their losses too, made harder to bear by Harry’s inability to speak of things he simply does not want to bring to mind. Harry’s mother Ellen, for instance, cannot connect with him any more.

The mines and the shelling is like the end of the world. The worst we have seen, and we have seen some bad ones. Harry and me are fine but it makes you cry. There are so many dead you cant help but walk on them’. Eddies notebook.

Clare Rhoden takes us into this vast arena of events, from the debate in Australia about the rightness of the war, into terrible battles, and on through into the waves of pyschological effects upon those who survived and their families. These 220 pages hold material for a 1000 page book. But the author has brought large and complicated things down to the personal level by revealing them in the way that we all ordinarily talk to each other: through a household argument, the queries of a nosy neighbour, the grumbles of soldiers about the food and the cold, the guarded talk about Gallipoli by a sergeant to a fresh officer as they weigh each other up, and through diaries and letters home. This makes The Stars In The Night deeply personal and emotional. I got so caught up in it that I paused reading several times so as to absorb it. I cannot praise this novel highly enough both for its story and it’s technical execution.

Although it is about the experiences of Australian soldiers, this novel could really be about the horror of any war, not just the one that millions prayed would be ‘The War To End All Wars.’ The character Harry Fletcher, like many veterans, could not bring himself to attend Anzac Day ceremonies but stayed quietly at home. Yet for anyone interested in the scars left by the Great War and thus the origin of the ‘Anzac legend’, the facts of it, and sometimes the mythology of it, this is a must-read.

Lest We Forget.

Note about ‘Anzac’ to readers unfamiliar with the term: The first units of Australians shipped out in 1915 were merged with the first New Zealanders into the Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Their losses in Gallipoli and later in France shocked both young countries. Australia, population four million in 1914, sent 417,000 volunteers to the conflict. 62,000 died. Both Australia and New Zealand suffered casualty rates of over 55% – killed, wounded, gassed, captured, marked as ‘missing’. The term ‘ANZAC’ endures.

Personal note 2020: As I began this book, Australia was dealing with the Black Summer and the whole world was attuned to news about some sort of virus. There was tension in the air, and for the first time I think I had an inkling of what it might have felt like in late 1914 in the households across nations as they readied for conflict, not knowing what lay ahead. On the day that I thoughtfully laid down The Stars in the Night, Anzac Day services were cancelled for the first time due to the menace of Covid-19.

Where to find The Stars in the Night: From publisher Odyssey Books , from BookDepository (with free shipping worldwide) and from Amazon in softcover and Kindle, Barnes and Noble in soft cover Nook, Chapters Indigo, Booktopia, and Waterstones. Or, ask your friendly local bookstore to order it in for you.

Clare Rhoden has also written a dsytopian series called The Chronicles of the Pale. See more about the series at her website here. My review of the first book, The Pale, is here.

Another novel I have reviewed here on this blog about WWI is ‘Nursing Fox‘ by Jim Ditchfield which focuses on the nurses. You can read about it here.

Acknowledgement: The graphics shown here are by courtesy of Clare Rhoden and Odyssey Books.

Mark, your reviewer here, is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.

Australia in 1942 as Described to Wartime USA

Nearly four score years ago thousands of Australian soldiers were captured in the fall of Singapore. Most of the remaining soldiers were fighting in North Africa. The total occupation of New Guinea had been halted, but only just, by the Battle of The Kokoda Track. The towns of the northern coast were being bombed* and invasion of Australian shores looked imminent. Britain was fully stretched fighting Germany and Italy. The Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, turned to President Roosevelt of the USA for help.

General Douglas (‘I will return’) MacArthur retreated from the Phillipines and set up headquarters in Brisbane. Thousands of American army and navy personal were despatched to the ‘sunburnt country’, a land most of them knew little about.

The booklet shown below was No. 23 in a series rushed off the presses to inform Americans about their new allies, in this case Australia. The foreword says the booklet ’emphasises the importance of Australia’s position not only for the Southwest Pacific, but also in the grand strategy of the United Nations.’

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There are all kinds of things in here that both Australians and Americans will find of interest, I think, even though much has changed. The author reminds his American readers that the Australian colonies came into existence because of the American Declaration of Independence. The loss of the colonies, where the British often dumped their convicts, motivated the British to attempt a new colony in an unexplored country on the far side of the globe. Of the 1400 members of the First Fleet, half were convicts**. Eventually 160,000 convicts were shipped to the new colony. Many were only petty criminals or ‘political agitators’ who the Brits wanted to get rid of, especially ‘Fenians’ from Ireland. Nowadays some 40% of Australians can trace their heritage back to Ireland including your correspondent, an O’Dwyer by name.

Another connection with the USA that Americans in 1942, and now, may not have known about was the gold rushes. Many hopeful men headed from Australia to California in 1849 including, apparently, my own great-great grandfather. When gold was found in Victoria in the 1850’s, disappointed miners, including thousands of Americans, flooded to the Great Southern Land. The largest rebellion against arbitrary authority in Australia was by angry gold miners (‘diggers’) at the ‘Euraka Stockade’. Among them were some Americans.

A big connection, by the way (strangely omitted by Timperley), is that in 1918 Americans fought with Australians at Chuignes, Mont St Quentin, Perrone and Hargicourt under the overall command of Australian general Monash.***

The booklet’s author, Timperley, blandly sets down the racist and patronising views of 1942, and at these you want to weep. Concerning the Australian Aborigines we read (gulp), ‘Although their intellectual capacities are distinctly limited, they are said to make quite good mechanics and handy men.‘Authorities have set aside native reserve where these remnants of a dying race may end their days in peace.’ Yes, it’s all true. The ‘natives’ were supposed to quietly go away and die. These were also the ghastly days of the White Australia immigration policy, the excuse of which was to keep out feared hordes of ‘coloured labourers’.

On the other hand, pre-1942 Australia got a lot right. As the author notes, the Labor Party stimulated political reforms such as votes for women in 1902, free and compulsory education, pensions for invalids and veterans, and ‘a great body of social legislation which has made Australia one of the most liberal of world democracies’. Prime Ministers had by then included a former miner, an itinerant labourer, a storekeeper, a school teacher, and the great war time leader John Curtin who left school at age 13. Timperley contrasts this with the unlikelihood of such things happening in the USA.

Timperly could not know then of course that the alliance being forged as he wrote would continue after the war in the Pacific, and it remains bi-partisan Australian national policy to this day.

My thanks go to Lisa C. who stumbled on this treasure in a ‘pre-loved bookshop’ and generously sent it on to me.

*The movie ‘Australia’ depicts the first day of the months-long bombing of Darwin.

**Many an Australian now trawls the genealogical websites hoping to discover that their forebears were convicts, especially one from the First Fleet.

***Monash had 208,000 men under his command, including 50,000 Americans.

Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.

Nursing Fox by Jim Ditchfield: Nurses on the Western Front

You may have seen ‘1917’, a visual immersion in the hell of the Great War. The novel ‘Nursing Fox’ also takes you into that rain of death, and in particular, the struggle to save the wounded on the front line.

Jim Ditchfield’s novel is a homage to the women who served as nurses on the Western Front. He says, ‘Although they performed a crucial role, the nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service are rarely mentioned in accounts of that conflict’. I feel well read about that war but until now I did not know about the conditions these nurses had to endure. The Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) had to be close to the trenches to give the wounded the best chance of survival. That meant the doctors, nurses and patients got regularly shelled and bombed.

We follow the fortunes of Lucy Paignton-Fox who has been raised on a cattle station in the Northern Territory. She has studied for what was in 1914 for women an extraordinary chance to train as a doctor. But when Australia follows Britain into the war in Europe, Lucy volunteers to be an army nurse.

NursingFox 001

The nurses work until exhausted and then keep on working. The wounded stream in from ‘stunts’ (battles) the names of which are are engraved on war memorials: The Somme, Fromelles, Pozieres, Ypres, Messines, the Menin Road, Passchendaele. Each name represents astonishing numbers of mangled humans.

‘There were only 41 men still fighting fit, four walking wounded, one who needed a stretcher. Just 41. The company had been 250 strong when the stunt started’. P.120 John Mitchell reviews his shattered company.

We are also introduced to John Mitchell of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and to Adam Haywood (Royal Flying Corps), Through their eyes we see the fighting on the ground and in the air. We are taken through the frentic disorganisation of things as basic as getting fed, getting the hospital tents set up, and moving about on the shattered ‘roads’ (planks laid over mud). As readers we get to know as little of the ruthless decisions being made by the base-wallahs (staff officers) as do the troops and nurses. But we see the results in the plethora of grim details. As well as the human toll, the author reminds us of the transport horses and mules killed by artillery or worked to exhaustion. There is no blaze of glory anywhere, just the endurance of the unbearable by men and women at a time when the best anyone could hope for was a ‘ticket to blighty’ (a wound so bad they’ll be sent to England.)

For a gripping account of the service of the nurses in France, and for a carefully researched and engrossing picture of how awful was ‘The War To End All Wars’ for everyone, I highly recommend Nursing Fox.

Where to find Nursing Fox: From publisher Odyssey Books , from BookDepository (with free shipping worldwide) and from Amazon in softcover and Kindle, Barnes and Noble in soft cover Nook, Chapters Indigo, Booktopia, and Waterstones. Or, ask your friendly local bookstore to order it in for you.
Personal Note: One battle name in particular gave me an irrational start: The Menin Road. As a child in New Zealand I lived on a quiet suburban street called Menin Road. The streets all around bore names which I later learnt to be battles of that terrible war. It’s curious to think that as I played games on the neat lawns I had no idea across the other side of the world so many thousands had died by the original Menin Road that their number will never be known.

Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.

The Ivory Gate: Bk II of the Ashes of Olympus, by Julian Barr

‘This is no game ..  Zeus means for the Trojan bloodline to join that of the Latins. His empire will mean starvation for all gods. Go now. Shatter the peace, turn brother against brother.’ Hera to Athena and Ares.

 In The Way Home, the first book of The Ashes of Olympus trilogy, the survivors of Troy flee the Greeks and take to the wind dark sea to find a new home. Before reading on you might like to read my review here.

Now in The Ivory Gate Julian Barr continues this emotive and action packed story. We are reminded that Aeneas’ troubles, the fate of the Trojan’s and of the Latins, all arise from the feud between the goddesses Aphrodite and Hera. I enjoy how Julian Barr gives us gods you can not only fear but also feel for. Hera’s machinations, for instance, are driven by her fierce desire to protect her daughter, Queen Dido of Karkhedon (later known as ‘Carthage’).


Aphrodite recruits the Furies, Poseidon, Cyclops and Hephaestus, god of fire and forger of weapons. Hera ramps up this arms race by summoning not only the warrior Athena but also the war god himself, Ares.  And this is no mere spat among the Olympians. This is for their survival.


As the narrative moves from Karkhedon to Scilia and on to Italia,  the Olympians plot and interfere causing grief. But the mortals struggle on, trying to protect the ones they love while striving for their destinies.  Julian Barr brings to life Dido’s anguish at being abandoned by her lover Aeneas’ , his clumsy attempts to connect with his son Julos who resents being pulled away from Dido, the only mother figure he has known, Lavinia’s attempts to live up to her father’s memory, Beroe’s smouldering grief at the loss of her partner.

There are many reasons for me to give this trilogy my whole hearted recommendation: it brings to life the misty times of legend, it delivers Virgil’s stories in an exciting form to a modern audience, it contains maps and superb illustrations (like the one above), and anyway I simply love stories like this.

The Way Home and The Ivory Gate are published by Odyssey Books, ‘where books are an adventure’.

At Julian Barr’s website you can also read about his Tooth and Blade series in which Norse Myth meets fantasy.

The Ivory Gate is available: through BookDepository, and Amazon Kindle and  Barnes and Noble Nook.

*The images here are copyright, and shown by courtesy of the author and Odyssey Books.

Mark is the guardian of Mawson. Mawson is the writer-bear of It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In and She Ran Away From Love.