by Lynette Ramsay Silver
The key to a truly great non-fiction book has nothing to do with the topic and everything to do with the writing. Just because it is factual doesn't mean it has to be dense and colourless. This book is possibly the most interest, poignant and fantastically written non-fiction I've ever read. I found it via a fictional text I was reading, Four Fires by Bryce Courtenay, who is known for his extensive research into the subject he's writing on. A great source of inspiration for him was Silver's book, and he listed it in his acknowledgements.
The book deals with the often overlooked story of the Australian POWs during World War 2 in Sandakan, Borneo. The Australians were incarcerated by the Japanese during their failed attempt to hold Singapore, with the majority of the captured soldiers (English, Scottish, Indian and some Australians) being sent to Changi to work on the railway and the remainders (almost purely Australian) were sent to Sandakan, where they were to construct an airfield for the Japanese. Barely fed and suffering greatly from the tropical diseases and tortures administered regularly the death toll was astronomical. And as the close of the war loomed the POWs were forced to march from one end of Borneo to the other, as it was assumed that in their weakened state that they would all die during the trip, and the possibility of survivors was not acceptable. Of approx 2000 men only 2-3 survived the ordeal.
But this wasn't the worst of it. Those who survived were ordered to remain quiet about the events as the Australian Government tried to push the whole event under the rug. It wasn't until 50 years later, due to the dedication of certain families and historians that the government finally released the 'Sandakan secret' to the public, and set forth teams to Borneo to exhume the lost soldiers remains and return them to their families.
This book reads like fiction, it was so heart-wrenchingly sad, yet it filled me with an immense feeling of pride in Australia's soldiers, in their abilities to stick together and help one another out, even at the darkest of times. Though it deals with such horrendous events, Silver manages to remain detached enough to report the events without any sort of bias, and without that grandiose exaggeration which is so often present in reports about war. This book resonated with me because of my nationality and because of the impact of Four Fires on me, which incorporates many of the soldiers stories into its story, thereby adding an extra (albeit fictional) dimension of emotion for me. I highly recommend this book to everyone, it is important to eliminate the gaps and silences about the past that governments and nations so eagerly employ, in order to learn from our pasts, we first have to know our past.
*note* I've attempted to remember these details by memory, so certain aspects such as death toll, and the nationality of those sent to Changi etc may have suffered accordingly. I've done my best to only incorporate facts I was 98% sure of, but please don't attack me if I'm wrong!