Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom by Anita Heiss

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss. (2016) Not available in French. 

This billet was due for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week but time went away from me and I’m late.

When Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms opens, we’re in 1944 in Australia. Japanese POW are kept in a camp in Cowra, in NSW, 300k East of Sydney. On August 5th, 1944, a thousand of these POWs escaped from the camp. Most of them died, either killed by Australian guards or because they committed suicide. Indeed, it was so shameful to a Japanese soldier to be held prisoner that it was better to die than come home with such a disgrace.

Hiroshi was among the Japanese who broke free from the camp in Cowra but he didn’t die. He managed to escape and reach the nearby Aboriginal station at Erambie. Banjo Williams, who lives at the mission, finds him and he and his wife Joan decide to hide Hiroshi until he can go home. It is a risky decision and their clandestine gust must stay hidden in a cave.

Banjo and Joan decide that their seventeen years old daughter Mary will bring him food and clothes. Hiroshi studied English at university – a convenient plot device –he can engage into friendly conversations with Mary and communicate properly with his hosts. Mary and Hiroshi get to know each other. Through their talks, the reader learns about Japan and life at the Aboriginal mission. And as expected, they fall in love.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is second Anita Heiss after Not Meeting Mr Right, a fluffy romance whose aim was to show the world that an Aboriginal young woman lived the same way as any Australian young woman of her age. Then I read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, not written but edited by Anita Heiss. It’s a stunning collection of 50 texts written by Aboriginal people from all Australia and all ages. They describe what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia and share their experience. Extremely moving.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is a novel between the two. It’s romance and fiction based on historical facts. It’s a political novel wrapped in a romance cover. Anita Heiss gathered stories and anecdotes from Erambie’s inhabitants and changed them into literary yarn, knitting a novel with a thread of fiction and a thread of history.

I enjoyed reading about life at Erambie and learnt more about the status of Aborigines in the 1940s. I think it’s even worse than Native American living on reserves in the USA. Food resources are limited. Work is rare and Banjo is lucky to be gainfully employed. Aborigines are under the guardianship of the mission’s Manager. They live under Acts of Protection and Assimilation, which means that they don’t have basic civil rights.

Anita Heiss’s purpose is commendable. You don’t catch flies with vinegar and this romance has more chances to attract a wide public than a dry essay. It is effective. The reader sees life through Banjo’s and Mary’s perspective. We feel empathy for them and anger towards the asinine rules they have to abide by. A non-Aboriginal reader will learn things and the novel’s educational aim is obvious, even if subtly played. Whatever works is good if it means that the message of tolerance is heard.

I thought that the romance between Hiroshi and Mary was too obvious, too predictable. In my eyes, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms would have been more powerful if Anita Heiss had chosen a male Aboriginal character who builds a strong friendship with a foreigner. The love card is a cliché that dims the novel’s lights. It’s good research and interesting but the romance is counterproductive and didn’t work for me.

If you want to know more about Aboriginal Australia, I’d recommend to read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Meanwhile, I hope that Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms reached readers who don’t read non-fiction and that it helped Australians face part of their past, as this was also one of Heiss’s goal.

For a better written and better informed piece about this novel, check out Lisa’s review here.

  1. July 20, 2019 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks for the mention, Emma:)
    I’d never thought about reversing the gender of the central Indigenous character… I can see how that would work too.
    She’s such a versatile author, Anita Heiss!


    • July 21, 2019 at 10:49 am

      You’re welcome, I tracked this book in Australian bookstores after I read your review.

      I think it would have been nice to read about a friendship between two young men of very different backgrounds.
      Anyway, I’ve seen on Wikipedia that there’s a Japanese garden in Cowra, with cherry blossoms and it comes from this historical events.


      • July 21, 2019 at 2:10 pm

        Yes, that’s true, I’ve been there. It’s a very beautiful ‘peace’ garden.


        • July 23, 2019 at 9:55 pm

          Sue’s been there too and she says it’s a “very special place”.
          I love visiting gardens when I travel.


  2. July 21, 2019 at 2:06 am

    Oh, I love that phrase, “You don’t catch flies with vinegar”. I should have used that for Tony Birch’s The white girl, though it sounds like it might be not quite as predictable as Heiss’ book. Heiss’ book has a beautiful cover too, which should attract a variety of readers.


    • July 21, 2019 at 10:53 am

      I’m glad you love this phrase, that was me thinking that a French saying also existed in English. *OOPS*
      As you probably guessed it, we use this saying to say that if you want people to come to you, it’s better to have a nice way of asking.
      I agree with you about the cover, it’s catchy.

      I have a Tony Birch on the shelf, Blood. Have you read it?


      • July 21, 2019 at 1:37 pm

        Yes, I guessed its meaning of course – it’s perfect.

        No, I’ve only read Ghost River and The white girl.

        BTW I’ve been to that Japanese Garden in Cowra several times – it’s only about 3 hours drive from where I live. It’s a very special place.


        • July 23, 2019 at 9:54 pm

          The meaning is quite obvious. I love expressions like this.

          Today I heard on the radio the reason why we say “merde” (shit) to wish someone a lot of success before an exam… It’s like your “break a leg”
          Apparently, it comes from the 19thC. People used to go to the theatre in carriages and the more successful the play was, the more horse shit there was on the pavement in front of the theatre. So lots of poo means a lot of success for a show. And that’s how we came to say “merde” to someone before going on stage, to an exam…Incredible, no?

          I’ll see how I like Tony Birch when I find time to read his book.

          I imagine it’s a special place. Japanese gardens are so peaceful in general and this one has a special history.


  3. July 23, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    I think that Heiss wishes to work within the conventions of Romance Fiction. Perhaps Horoshi should have offended Mary, so the story could build to an inevitable reconciliation.


    • July 23, 2019 at 9:55 pm

      That she did. It didn’t quite work for me but it’s a nice romance book if you like them.


  4. July 24, 2019 at 9:12 am

    Hi Emma. I am glad to find this book review. I am a newbie here in WordPress, and I am sharing my first book review about Anne Lamott: I hope you like my essay!


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