Even in the age of air travel, Australia is a long way away. Traveling to Australia by sea must have been like traveling to the moon. Traveling to Australia by sea with a shipload of repatriated Aussie infantrymen and a load of prisoners on a sabotaged passenger ship, as Tom Bowen does in Angela Thirkell’s Trooper to the Southern Cross, is even worse. Tom is a cheerful narrator so, in spite of his many trials and tribulations on board the Rudolstadt, the journey becomes a good yarn instead of a torment.
Tom is a newly married man by the time his orders come to return to Australia in 1919. He had been serving as a medic for the Austrian Imperial Force and will be doing the same for a shipful of rowdy “diggers,” their families, and a few dozen prisoners that got shoved onto the ship at the last minute. It takes them weeks to travel from London to Fremantle, via Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The diggers “borrow” anything that isn’t nailed down, smuggle beer, and generally take over the ship. The ship, handed over at the end of the war as part of German reparations, was sabotaged by the engineers and none of the pipes are hooked up right. Tom, his wife, and the other officers do the best they can to maintain a minimum of order.
Tom is a discursive narrator. It may bother some readers that it takes Tom a while to get around to the voyage or that he’s a little heavy-handed with the foreshadowing or that he keeps dropping in asides about what happened to particular characters later on. For me, Tom’s meandering style made the book feel like I was sitting down with an older relative to hear the story of something that was kind of awful when it happened but is now fondly remembered.
What will bother some readers even more than this (and also keeping with the impression of listening to an older relative) is the fact that Tom and his fellows are so casually racist that they can hardly mention Indians (as in India), southern Europeans, and the Irish without using ethnic slurs. Trooper to the Southern Cross was originally published in 1936, which goes a little way to explaining (though certainly not excusing) the racism. In fact, there is a particularly ugly incident when the diggers and some of the prisoners essentially riot in Colombo, Sri Lanka on shore leave.
Trooper to the Southern Cross is mixed bag. I did enjoy some of my time with the rowdy Australians. Reading about a World War I veteran who did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder was an interesting experience, given that most of the WWI and post-WWI stories I read tend to be about tortured souls. The racism, however, was an unpleasant bit of verisimilitude.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.