When Grace married the handsome and worldly Captain Leo Waterhouse in Australia during the middle of the Second World War, she never doubted that she had married a hero and he would come back to her unscathed. But Leo never returns from a commando raid on Japanese ships in the Singapore Harbour, leaving Grace a widow, like so many, to shoulder the pain and regret of losing her husband.
Sixty years later, Grace is still bitter and perplexed by the tragic death of the love of her life when the true story of the abortive mission comes to light. As Leo's diary during captivity, scrawled on toilet paper, and new fragments of the events emerge, Grace must confront her doubts about her hero and his ultimate betrayal.
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About the Author
Thomas Keneally (b. 1935) is an Australian author of fiction, nonfiction, and plays, best known for his novel Schindler's List. Inspired by the true story of Oskar Schindler's courageous rescue of more than one thousand Jews during the Holocaust, the book was adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg, which won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Picture. Keneally was included on the Man Booker Prize shortlist three times—for his novels The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, and Confederates—before winning the award for Schindler's List in 1982. Keneally is active in Australian politics and is a founding member of the Australian Republican Movement, a group advocating for the nation to change its governance from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. In 1983 he was named an Officer of the Order of Australia for his achievements.
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I knew in general terms that I was marrying a hero. The burden lay lightly on Leo, and to be a hero's wife in times supposedly suited to the heroic caused a woman to swallow doubt or to understate her demands. Although, as much as women now, we suspected men might be childish or make mysterious decisions, it wasn't our place to say it for fear of damage to the fabric of what we had. The Japanese had barely been turned back and had not abandoned the field of ambition. It was heresy and unlucky to undermine young men at such a supreme hour.
But with the confidence of near-on nine decades I can talk about doubt now. I would at least ask, what is so precious about the heroic impulse? Why do ordinary lusty boys love it better in the end than lust itself, and better than love? Why did Leo – judging by his actions – love the Boss, Charlie Doucette, in a way that rose above love of any woman, me included?
There's a documentary on television every second night these days about the end of World War II and the kamikaze pilots, mysteries of self-immolation. The voice-over commentators are bemused by it all, as if self-immolation were alien to us. And that annoys me. Because self-immolation was a respectable fashion with us too then, in the early 1940s. Every boy and girl put their love on the altar of the war, and that's just the way it was. We didn't reflect on or criticise the impulse. We never really believed till it happened that it was our marriage which would be picked up and hurled into the fiery pit. We believed excessively in the fatherly wisdom of generals and statesmen. Every picture we saw and every song we sang approved of what was happening, approved of the risks, celebrated the immolations, and saw the hero return grinning and unaltered by the stress of events.
I believe I began to write this for the sake of my somewhat bemused granddaughter Rachel and for her daughters, but it grows to have a vaguer, more general audience than that. It is the manuscript I always fancied I could write. I am not averse to their finding it amongst what I leave behind, and I don't think anyone else but the girls would be interested. But the act of addressing one includes the vain ambition to address a million. And to address to the unheeding millions what Leo in his innocence and martial mode wrote of it all.
Anyhow, let me get down to the case. Leo Waterhouse was the most beautiful adult boy I have seen in nearly ninety years of life on earth. I first met him when my cousin Melbourne Duckworth brought him home on leave to the New South Wales town of Braidwood in the warm December of 1942. My father came from Melbourne, like his brother, who had labelled his son with that city's name. My father had moved north of the Murray River for his career's sake and he was the Braidwood National Bank manager, which counted for a lot in a bush town at the end of a long drought, with an endless succession of dry skies over Australia. A bank manager's discretion with credit was either cursed or blessed by farmers as the pastures got threadbare, and fissures of erosion afflicted the soil. We girls liked to think our dad was seamlessly blessed and thanked by everyone in town and from the farms about. It might have been so. He did have some sense of social justice.
My cousin Mel told me when Leo Waterhouse, our house guest, was not around that Leo's father had been a farmer somewhere up on the north coast, but had lost his wife and taken a job in the administration of the Solomon Islands. Leo had grown up partly under the care of an aunt in Grafton, and in Malaita in the Solomons. Leo certainly looked to me as if he had spent his childhood in places which did not inhibit growth. He had already done some law at Sydney University, and that served to add to his wonderful worldiness.
From the kitchen window of the bank residence, I saw my cousin Mel and the tall visitor creep up on each other in the backyard, practising falls, occasionally miming slitting each other's throats with a swipe of the hand. I saw my cousin Melbourne land, after one encounter like that, in an oleander bush. They were both playful and serious, those tussling young men. Some of my girlfriends who called in from around the town were hopelessly and frantically attracted to them, as women were to beautiful doomed boys then. He looks like Errol Flynn, all the girls said of Leo. I thought more of a young Ronald Colman, the moustache, the tropic-weight uniform, and big secrets he lightly carried. His mother had died when he was ten. When seen as a motherless child, his appeal to the local girls was more intense still.
I continued to watch the two young men too, as Leo Waterhouse our visitor became less and less apologetic, tripping my cousin up spectacularly, cutting his throat more ruthlessly. But they were so discreet for young heroes. Returning to the kitchen for lemonade and tea, they told me nothing about their expertise with explosives or knives or folboats, the latter a term I would learn about only later. But I knew even then they were involved in something more exotic than ordinary soldiering, even though this tumbling and tripping and ritualised throat-slashing was all I saw of what they did as a living.
And do you still want to go back to your law studies after the war? my tall father asked at the meal table. Certainly I do, said Leo, below his new brushy moustache which barely grew.
It was a good summer. I was a wary, reticent girl, too tall and angular to be utterly happy about myself. My reticence was only partly induced by my upbringing as a model child of model parents in a small country town. It was temperamental as well. You will see from the story I tell that I am watchful by nature. Yet without an exchange of many words, within three days Leo and I became totally enchanted by each other. I remember that we conveyed to each other a certainty of the other's perfection. Yet we were so uncorrupted. Our few, momentary, stealthy physical contacts would occur when my cousin Mel and Leo and I walked my friends, the daughters of the town solicitor, pharmacist, general practitioner, stock and station agent and headmaster, homewards through the dark, browned-out town of Braidwood. Leo and I would lag behind or go ahead on the broad roads, and if we timed it right would find ourselves in the ultra-darkness between houses under a massive dark sky on the back streets of the town. The occasional straying of hands was a mere stoking of the fires. How ridiculous given that the war which changed everything was under way! Yet I valued his gallantry. At one stage outside the Braidwood School of Arts, as Leo reached for a kiss, he held my outer thigh to his and then repented of it.
It all filled me with months' worth of fantasy at the Kurrajong Guest House in Canberra, where I normally boarded between returns home. Nothing as potentially intimate had ever happened to me before. In its way it seemed vaster than the movements of Japanese hosts in the Pacific, of German arms on the steppes of Russia.
We certainly did not know enough to understand that even in the Independent Reconnaissance Department, that bureau of noblest and most glamorous human endeavours, and amidst the intelligence organisations on which it fed, there were older, ambitious men, who were willing to deny all the brave backyard tumbling of Leo and my cousin if it suited them: older men, soldiers for life, who had administrative gifts and who weren't going back to the field of war, and who could write off Leo's and Mel's valour if it embarrassed them in some way. Who might find it politically inadvisable to defend them even from the enemy. I could not have believed it, and it was probably just as well, since I could not have convinced Leo. And anyhow, that's the burden of my tale.
Inevitably that Christmas–New Year period in Braidwood, the question came up one lunchtime. I think it was my mother who asked. And your parents, Leo?
She too was considered rather unfashionably tall – nearly five feet ten inches – and had not married until she was twenty-five, then considered a fairly late, spinsterish age. But she had seen what had happened and that her daughter was under an enchantment. Leo gave my mother a more explicit rundown than he had given me.
My poor mother took a drink of milk one day from a diseased cow, he told us. The family had been walking in the Clarence Valley; the farmer had had no malice in offering his milk straight from the cow. But bovine TB had killed her in three short years. My father, said Leo, took up a post in the islands afterwards. He was Superintendent of Agriculture in Malaita in the Solomons, and now I'm afraid he's a civilian prisoner of war of the Japanese. He's been moved on somewhere north, because the Americans haven't found him yet.
That must be very trying, said my mother.
It gives me an interest in the region, said Leo.
In an older man this would sound like irony, but in him it was understated purpose. It's a shame, Leo told us. He had a hard time in the first war, and now he's a prisoner ... Leo's aunt in northern New South Wales had got a Red Cross card two months past which said that he was in good health.
I was not in Braidwood all the time then. My father had not permitted me to join the Land Army or any of the women's military units. The war represented a great chance to escape stringent fathers, but my father saw enlistment as a prelude to becoming fast, wearing trousers, smoking, drinking, and the unutterable. But having attended a secretarial course and learned to touch-type I was permitted to work in Canberra for the Department of the Navy. If I had not taken my holidays when I did I would not have met Leo, since I normally made the long bus journey home to Braidwood only once a fortnight. When I worked there, the capital of the Commonwealth of Australia boasted a population of barely 10,000, and everyone seemed buffered from the war by the acreages of pasture and the great insulating force of the eternal bush. I'd started work at the age of twenty, and at the time I first saw Leo tumbling with my cousin in the yard at Braidwood, I had risen to the rank of Procurement Officer, Stationery and Office Equipment.
During the week in Canberra, I boarded at the Kurrajong Guest House, a respectable, temperance boarding house whose manageress, a former Braidwood woman, my parents knew. If my parents had understood how much sundry politicians drank at the supposedly temperance Kurrajong, and how dented the respectability was by their desire to smuggle secretaries into their rooms, they might have summoned me permanently home.
A week after New Year, I said goodbye to Leo and went back to work, and Leo and my cousin vanished – to Queensland, as it turned out.
But soon, attentive Captain Leo Waterhouse descended upon the plainness of my life again. One day in early 1943, when he was on his way for some reason to Melbourne (the city, not my cousin), the bomber he was travelling in made an emergency landing at Canberra's long, grassy airfield.
Let me say that most of what I now know of Leo's activities in those days comes from his own occasional letters and intermittent diary notes, and from official documents pushed under my nose by Tom Lydon, a man who once wrote a book on the adventures of Charlie Doucette and Rufus Mortmain and Leo (The Sea Otters, Cassell, 1968) and who has never lost interest in these men. What other sources contribute to this tale you will learn as I go along.
But I know now that Leo was on his way to Melbourne to commune with the officers who were department heads of a group called the Independent Reconnaissance Department over a proposed raid on Japanese-held Rabaul in which he was to participate. Thanks to the faulty bomber he appeared in our outer office in Canberra, in his winter-weight uniform and his Sam Brown (a swagger-stick underarm), like a fulfilment of day dreams. According to the serpentine mores of the day, such an apparition at a girl's workplace was a very serious gesture of interest. He was aware of it, I was aware of it. He was hopeful, it turned out, that the engine problem would require him to stay overnight in Canberra. We'd have dinner, at least that. I did not want to sit at table with him at the Kurrajong, where some of the regular women guests would have interrupted us. I wanted him to appear, be admired, and then we would go elsewhere, into the centre of town, Civic. In that way my female fellow-boarders would be astonished at how lucky I was, the male guests informed that I was not available. As house rules required, he had me back by 10.30, when the doors of the Kurrajong were locked.
In Melbourne, as well as conferring, he did some course on explosives, how to attach them to ships and planes.
When the course finished, he organised a Sydney leave and caught a train to Goulburn and a car to Braidwood to seek my father's permission to ask me to become his fiancée. I was summoned home from Canberra. On an afternoon walk through the quiet streets, amongst gargling magpies and fluting currawongs, with light slanting through the wayward colonnades of trees, he asked me the huge question. We kissed. As it got suddenly darker he touched my breast and then apologised, making it impossible for me to say, Go on please. And then we went back to my parents' place, announced the expected news, and slept feverishly in our separate rooms.
On our afternoon walk he had told me that he would be gone for a time, and that out of fairness to me, we should not marry until he was back. At this stage I knew nothing of bunches of initials like SOE or IRD, I had not heard of Boss Doucette. The lack of specifics made it seem all the more grand in scale. Of course he told me he was confident he would be coming back. We would marry then, he suggested. Was that all right?
Here was the lure of delayed fulfilment – men and women both like to play that game even now. An immense anticipatory excitement grew, calculated to fill banal days with consecrated light and profane heat. The idea that a man must go on a quest to earn the company and solace of his woman is ancient, is literally Homeric, and is a handy one for nations who are organising their young for war and bloodshed.
First Leo nominated June of 1943 as a possible wedding date. By then he believed he would have been into the Minotaur's cave and slain the beast and been rendered fully a man. But by April he wrote to me announcing that all timetables had been changed and he hoped to see me next by October. He said he knew that that was a long time, and though his affections and intentions were fixed, he felt he should offer me the chance of freedom. A beautiful girl like me must have many suitors, he acknowledged. Of course, I wrote back. I told him of my willingness to wait. Indeed, I'd had a nasty experience that Easter, when one of the senior men at the ministry, flushed and alcoholic, had asked me to sleep with him. He was nearly my father's age, and that made me feel sluttish and frightened and ugly and even took my mind in directions I did not want it to go. It was, that is, what my granddaughter would call creepy. It rendered the prospect of waiting for Leo and his unspecified heroic business to be attended to all the more attractive.
By letter from Leo, and other means post-war, I got a picture of the training he was engaged in during those months. Cairns in Queensland was one of the ports from which our troops and the Americans in New Guinea were supplied. It had also a hillside training camp for the officers and men of the Independent Reconnaissance Department, of which Leo was a member. There Leo met and worked with Free Frenchmen and British and Australian and Dutch, all pursuing plans to infiltrate various sectors of the new Japanese empire.
Their chief trainer was a tall English sailor named Rufus Mortmain, with whose wife, the writer Dotty Mortmain, I would become friends. The men trained in the thick rain forest of the Atherton Tableland west of town. Trucked down to the coast Leo and others, faces blackened, spent nights in the sort of collapsible canoes they called folboats, navigating from Palm Cove to False Cape or out to the coral reef and back. Leo's usual companion was a tidily built young Russian Jew who could speak Mandarin and Shanghai-nese and whose family had come to Australia via Harbin in Manchuria and Shanghai. His name was Jockey Rubinsky, and he was a leading seaman in the Australian navy. His languages might be useful in operations around the Equator.
Excerpted from "The Widow and Her Hero"
Copyright © 2007 Thomas Keneally.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Don't be put off by the (perhaps deliberately) mawkish title of this book, which does not even begin to capture the flavour of this uneven but gripping novel. Admittedly, it is at first hard to grasp what sort of tone Australian author Thomas Keneally, who won the Man Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's Ark , is gunning for in his 25th novel. The story is narrated y the elderly Grace, the remarried widow of World War II Australian captain Leo Waterhouse. He was beheaded by the Japanese in Singapore in 1945, after being captured while on a failed mission to sink Japanese boats in the Singapore harbour. Her quaintly decorous yet cheeky tone as she relates their courtship is annoyingly twee: 'At one stage outside the Braidwood School of Arts, as Leo reached for a kiss, he held my outer thigh to his and then repented of it.' It seems even more out of place in contrast to her rather robust, even macho, descriptions of her husband's experience during Operation Cornflakes, an earlier successful mission in which Leo and his teammates used small boats to creep up to Japanese ships and affix limpet mines to the hulls. Indeed, in the first half of the book, the conceit of a widow recalling the heroics of her husband seems merely a framework within which Keneally can indulge in his love for military strategems. This impression is reinforced by the fact that there are lengthy excerpts from Leo's own hand. His diaries, some even written on toilet paper while he was imprisoned in Singapore, have conveniently survived, unbelievably written in great detail and in complete sentences. But persevere and the story of handsome, noble Leo and the long-suffering Grace eventually raises discomfiting questions on the nature of heroism, which Keneally deftly dissects. Although the men's bravery and morality are admirable, the writer also tackles the human, more specifically male, yearning for adventure and glory, as epitomised in the swashbuckling Charlie 'The Boss' Doucette, the Irish mastermind behind the missions. As Grace muses at one point: 'To men of a certain kind, not to all men, but to some men in certain circumstances and under the force of certain ideas, bravery was its own end... The purpose was to be brave, the purpose was even to be doomed.' Asian readers also get the chance to see wartime Singapore through the eyes of Australians, many of whom fought and died here. There are chilling instances when familiar places and phrases are recast in a historical light, such as when the soldiers are jailed at Outram Road prison, then tried at the Japanese military court located in the then Raffles College (a forerunner of the National University of Singapore). As Grace, referring to a war buff who made a trip to post-war Singapore, writes: 'He had also kindly taken a photograph of the college motto above the gate: Auspicium Melioris Aevi, Hope For A Better Age.' It is easy to comfort ourselves with the thought that those who fall in battle died so that we can be free. The uncomfortable idea this book raises is that some men might have marched to their doom, not for the sake of freedom or justice, but for the cause of heroism itself, with death the ultimate commitment.