Khaki Town by Judy Nunn

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the invading Japanese Army.  Within days, Japan bombed Darwin and it was believed by many that this threatened a direct threat of attack on Australian soil.

On 30 March 1942, the Allied South West Pacific Area command (SWPA) was formed and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Supreme Allied Commander South-West Pacific Area.  His headquarters were in Brisbane.  It is said that up to one million US servicemen came to Australia and about 100,000 of these were African- Americans.  Many of these troops were based in Townsville.

These hard historical facts form the structure around which the author has woven a story of the day-to-day experiences of residents in Townsville and their interactions with American troops.  But the reporting of some of the events described in Khaki Town – those which are based on fact – was politically suppressed at the time.  This adds a frisson of excitement to the story as the reader experiences at one remove the ‘real’ story of what happened in Townsville in 1942.

The title Khaki Town comes from the contemporary description of Townsville.  As one of the main protagonists says:

… just military everywhere.  Army, navy, air force, you name it, and all in khaki.  … We’ve become a khaki town. [13]

The threat of war on one’s doorstep is at the very least a larger than life experience and the recounting of it demands larger than life characters.  And there is no shortage of them in Khaki Town.  From Val Callahan – the rough around the edges but with a heart of gold publican – to Baz Taylor the smooth and suave con man with the Ronald Coleman moustache – to Aunty Edie from Palm Island, all are Australian through and through.  Together with a host of other characters, each plays his/her role to perfection in the drama which unfolds as a small country town struggles to accommodate itself to an influx of Americans who are – by and large – ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’.

But the novel is not only about the war and the influx of soldiers into Townsville, it is a ‘book about racism’ as the author makes clear in her ‘Note to Readers’.  To emphasise the point. some of the language used may be considered offensive but reflects the values and beliefs of the era.

Simmering below the surface is the tension between the whites and the Aboriginal peoples, between the Townsville residents and the Army personnel [black and white, American and Australian], and between the white American soldiers and the African-American soldiers.  These African-American men are commonly referred to as ‘Negroes’ or ‘niggers’ using the derogatory language of the 1940s.  On more than one occasion, these tensions break out and some have quite serious consequences.  These sequences are written with sensitivity and drama although sometimes the explanatory dialogue is a little overwrought:

This whole tragic affair is not your fault, Corporal.  You mustn’t blame yourself, you’re hardly the guilty party.  Besides you’ve come to me now and I’m glad you have.  We must get to the bottom of this.  That is if it’s at all humanly possible. [220]

The presence of a United States Congressman sent by the President to investigate the deaths of a number of black soldiers is based on a visit made by Lyndon Johnson to Townsville in 1942.  His involvement is used as a mechanism by which the truth behind the deaths is brought to the surface.  The drawing of his character – which is presumably based on the ‘real’ Lyndon Johnson – creates another larger than life personality and he dominates the pages in which he appears.

Running alongside the main plot are two love stories.  One – between an African-American soldier and a young Townsville woman – suggests that skin colour is not a bar to love and that it is clearly possible for interactions between white and black to be without prejudice.  The second – again crossing cultural lines but this time between an American officer and the wife of an Australian soldier – plays out differently but again shows that cohabitation is possible.

These two love stories are more subtle in their telling than that of the main story of the antagonism between the white and black American soldiers.  While that story has to be told bluntly and without evasion, it is somewhat of a relief to read of the unfolding of the two romances.

Overall, Khaki Town is a good read.  It would be of particular interest to those readers who may have lived in or know Townsville. There are many references to local sites which add a verisimilitude to the story and those who know Townsville will recognise the street names and places. 

Judy Nunn is an Australian author and Khaki Town is her fifteenth novel.  While her first three novels were set in the worlds of television, theatre and film, her more recent ones have been historically-based fiction. 

Khaki Town


by Judy Nunn

Penguin Random House

ISBN 978 0 14379 517 9

$32.99; 400pp

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