Keneally,Thomas: Australia Vol. II

Thomas Keneally

Australians Vol. II: Eureka to the Diggers, Crows Nest, NSW, 2012; first published 2011

Keneally’s second volume of three and continues in the style of the first, except that the cast of characters march more chronologically in chapters sub-titled ‘1860s to 1870s’ (two), ‘1880s’, ‘1890s’ and ‘Late 1890s to 1914’ (Federation and immediately after). His opening remarks (p. xiv) telegraph the conflicting themes of the book: visions of equity versus class conflict; burgeoning cities but ‘unlocking’ the land; a vast continent beset by drought; national aspirations coexisting with provincialism; independence and subservience; admiration for larrikins and men who fought but fear of violence; anti-authoritarianism but resistance to revolution; ambivalent attitudes towards its own North; White Australia on the doorstep of Asia and wary of a militant Japan; poverty in the midst of the Working Man’s Paradise.

Suffusing it all was the idea that, although provincial, we were an especial people; that although distant, in our social experiments and reforms, we were a society the world had much to learn from; that we were better than those who thought us crass and that, unleashed, we would show them a thing or two. The thunderclap of a world-wide war reinforced the mythology of Australian uniqueness even while helping create a world that widened class schisms and bespoke unresolved and coming peril.

Of Federation, Keneally writes:

It was a matter of celebration, thought Deakin and others, that the Federation of Australia had been achieved without much external pressure and the lack of immediate threat. Australia was now, as one historian says, “a nation, but not yet a nation-state”. But it was imagined as such by its members, and subscribed to by a mass of Australians as a special combination and community, at least a potential utopia, and as a secret well-kept. (p. 239)

The book ends with two chapters, more than 100 pages, on World War I. Keneally writes of Anzac under the heading ‘The blood myth unassailable’.

At Gallipoli, says the legend, Australians showed that true discipline was not parade ground discipline. but the endurance tempered in the furnace of Australia’s hard bush labours, skills, traditions and misadventures. (Again, the suburbs were downplayed.) … In the Australian version the Anzacs were superior to all other forces, but in fact they were also quaking boys – if they had inherited stoicism from their forebears (and many, many of them had) it does not mean they felt no fear. To depict them as supra-human is in fact to diminish the bravery of the mass. (p. 305)

There is material on the reality of war and the aftermath of war at pp. 320-38 and on the work of nurses at pp. 310-14. The divisions at home are covered at pp. 359-69. There is a timeline and bibliographical notes. There are reviews here and here and Keneally talks about the book here and here.

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