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Suspenseful Tale of War Nurses, but Sisters First

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Posted: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 8:37 pm | Updated: 8:50 pm, Tue Aug 27, 2013.

The award-winning writer of “Schindler’s List,” Thomas Keneally, sends his readers back in time to The Great War, the one promised to be the last of its kind. Our unlikely and shifting narrators are Australian nurses, two sisters who not only survive, but thrive just behind the front lines.

We find heroes among these women warriors, who at times “considered yielding to tears,” yet did not because “there was nowhere to put them. Both hands were full” of wounded men.

Sally and Naomi Durance are estranged sisters with a tragic and sinful secret between them. They are two very different young women who happen to share origins as farmers’ daughters with “hayseed palates.”

Sally escaped the farm to practice nursing in Sydney, “in the hope that on a different stage she might have a franker soul.” Her younger sister Sally stayed on at the farm to tend to their ailing mother and work at a country hospital.

The call of war tests the characters, our country mouse and city mouse, when both sisters volunteer for the Australian Army Nursing Service.

With their secret burning into their sense of morality, the Durance sisters embark on a mission to martyrdom — their assigment, duty beyond the front lines of Gallipoli and the Western Front.

“The Daughters of Mars” does well to avoid glamorizing the war with love stories of nurses and captains. The author chronicles the mainly untold life of nurses behind the front lines.

While following his character-driven plot of nurses, surgeons, orderlies and doctors, the reader feels a sweeping number of soldiers pass by, acknowledged only by their mass and severity of injury.

Like the warriors of Homer’s “Iliad,” Keneally gives readers a sense of the vast and continuous casualties dealt by war and reminds us that each soldier was once a boy armed with little more than a pitchfork. We are not meant to remember the names of each individual, but we should realize when the author writes of “him,” he implies “them.”

Through the gore of triages, to the dysentery and mustard gas wards, a bond forms between the Durance sisters that the reader is led to believe would have only been possible during war. Trauma binds them, as it so often does, and “their crime drew them together so utterly that they were no longer city and country nurses, but sisters once more of the same womb.”

Keneally has written a novel heavy with historical facts, yet also full of mysterious suspense. A diverse set of characters pass through the plot over the span of years and each one shifts the plot slightly like the wings of a butterfly on an ocean tide. We may know how the war ended, the dates that the battles were fought and when reinforcements arrived, but we do not know the personal tales of success and tragedy.

“The Daughters of Mars” does not present itself as a mystery novel, yet as the last chapters pass and the remaining pages turn, the reader becomes aware that a mystery is what we have been reading all along. The shocking turn of events which conclude the novel, as Keneally puts it, “goes to show how many ways there are of being human.”

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