The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Sarah and Hannah, her grand-daughter, are travelling by cruise ship from San Diego to Sydney repeating a trip which Sarah made sixty-eight years previously but in the other direction.

Sarah was a war bride and, in the last few weeks of the Second War World, married an American serviceman from Virginia.  In December 1945, Sarah and hundreds of other war brides – and some children – boarded the USS Mariposa to travel to the States to reunite with their husbands and fathers.

‘War bride’ is a term used generally in times of war when foreign women marry servicemen posted to their country.  The term was particularly common during the First and Second World Wars.  It is thought that up to 15,000 Australian women married American servicemen posted here during the Pacific conflict.  The United States promised these war brides – and their children if there were any – free transport to the States.  In total, up to 70,000 women and children from a number of countries were transported to the States following the Second World War.

Contrary to some myths about these marriages, many were not made in haste and not as a result of ‘one-night stands’ but for love.  By travelling to the States, the war brides left behind their families and friends to start life in another country.

Thus, the context in which this sensitive and compelling novel is set.  The structure of the novel is not an uncommon one – it is written in the first person and the voices we hear are Sarah’s and Hannah’s.  Each chapter alternates between them with Sarah telling her story from age six to the present when she is in her late eighties.  Hannah’s story is partly about her life and partly about the present as she and Sarah travel on the cruise ship.

At first, this seems no more than an interesting literary device but, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Sarah is telling her story not only to the reader but also to Hannah.  Hannah is struggling in her life and her participation in the cruise is an attempt by Sarah and Hannah’s mother to provide an opportunity for some healing.

The novel is also about the lies we tell – sometimes to protect others and sometimes to protect ourselves from the consequences of telling the truth.  Perpetuating these lies has far-reaching consequences which may be unseen at the time.

Sarah and her brothers Fred and Jack with their parents live on a dairy farm in New South Wales.  It is a struggle – both in terms of the back-breaking work and low financial return.  Her father is taciturn and disconnected from his family especially from Sarah’s mother who has ‘spells’ when she retreats to her bedroom for days at a time.  When the quality of the farm’s milk is criticised, the farm is sold and the family moves to Sydney.

When she leaves school, it is wartime and Sarah finds a position in Army Headquarters.  Through her work, she comes in contact with American servicemen – one of whom Roy invites her out.  A romance begins which results in marriage and ultimately in Sarah becoming a ‘war bride’ and travelling to the States to reunite with Roy.

Drawing on documented accounts of the experiences of war brides and material given to them by various helping organisations, the author describes Sarah’s experiences on the boat and on a train as she travels across the United States to her husband’s hometown.

Parallel to Sarah’s story is Hannah’s – a nineteen-year-old student nurse who is struggling with a relationship and with her own life.  As she hears Sarah’s story, Hannah begins to see parallels between her experiences and those of Sarah.  This is the raison d’ȇtre for Hannah to accompany Sarah on the trip and so the story moves to its satisfying conclusion.

The author has skilfully interwoven historical fact with the fictional story of two women. Sociological issues of the time – the attitudes of Australians [and particularly those of Australian servicemen] towards the American servicemen; the austere wartime conditions; the constant fear of invasion; the dread that sons and brothers would be killed; and the resulting distress and grief when they were – are seamlessly woven into the story.

However, there is also the human story of the two women both of whom are searching for love and acceptance.  One can’t help but be caught up in their stories and hope that they succeed.

Eleanor Limprecht has written a heartfelt story which will appeal to many readers.

She is the author of two previous novels both of which received critical acclaim.  Although she spent her childhood in other countries, she now resides in Sydney.

The Passengers

[2018]

by Eleanor Limprecht

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76063 133 8

329pp; $23.99

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