Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones

In the end it was the cancer that brought the memories. Chemotherapy sleep, cold like reptile skin. The smell of bile, the bone-deep ache and – for the first time in decades – dreams.

Years after the Vietnam War tore up his homeland and killed most of his family, Minh lives with his wife in Perth, Western Australia. he thinks he has left behind the past, with memories too painful to be faced or spoken of. But as he battles cancer, he finds the memories coming back, first in dreams and then in his waking hours.

In 1962 Australian soldier Frank Stevens is sent to the Vietnamese Highlands to recruit and train local tribesmen. As the situation becomes increasingly volatile both for the country and for Frank himself, his friendship with Minh, his translator, grows. The two seem inseparable.

Seeing the Elephant: A Novel is a heartwrenching novel of war, friendship and love, told from the first person point of view of the elderly Minh, looking back on his life, as well as through the letters Frank writes to his much loved grandfather back in Australia.

Historically the novel covers events leading up to the official involvement of Australia in the Vietnam conflict, but emotionally it covers even more – the effects of imperialist intervention on local people, loss, survival and the depths of love, in a finely crafted moving whole.

Shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2014, Seeing the Elephant: A Novel is a stunning debut novel.

Seeing the Elephant: A Novel, by Portland Jones
Margaret River Press, 2016
ISBN 9780994316745

My Australian Story: Vietnam, by Deborah Challinor

It’s supposed to be a fair way to decide who does national service and who doesn’t, but Mum reckons it isn’t. She says the fate of a mother’s son shouldn’t depend on a number picked out of a barrel. The marbles that go in the barrel have the days of the month on them. An agreed number of marbles are drawn out of the barrel, and if your birth date is on one, you’re ‘balloted in’.

It’s 1969 and Davey’s big brother Tom has been conscripted. Chosen because of his birthdate, he has no choice but to report for service. Soon, Tom is in Vietnam and his family are back home worrying about him. But there are other things happening in Davey’s life, too. He and his two best mates love surfing, and are determined to win the inaugural Newcastle Under-14 Championship. Thye are fascinated, too, by the planned moon landing, and follow preparations keenly. But growing up isn’t always fun, and Davey and his mates have some hard lessons to learn.

Vietnam , part of the My Australian Story series, is a wonderful diary format story giving an insight into Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War through the experiences of one family. It also offers a snapshot of late 1960s life, including the music of the time, key events in the year, the union movement, the impact of war on generations of Australians and more.

An excellent offering for primary aged readers.

My Australian Story: Vietnam , by Deborah Challinor
Scholastic Australia, 2015
ISBN 9781743628003

When the Hipchicks Went to War, by Pamela Rushby

When I went to Vietnam, I packed a suitcase full of satin bikinis trimmed with fringes. A pair of knee-high white boots. Mini-dresses, ultra short, sparkling with spangles. A platinum-blonde wig. False eyelashes like hairy back caterpillars. Tap Shoes. Heaps of Max Factor make-up.
I was sixteen years old, and I was going to a war.
I didn’t have a clue.

Kathleen is sixteen. She thinks she’s got it sorted. It’s the swinging 60’s and the world is exciting. She is bright but sick of school, ready for the next stage of her life. And as one of eight children in the family, Kathleen is fairly practised at getting what she wants too. Her best friend introduces her to the Folk Centre and she enjoys the music without listening too closely to the words or paying much attention to the Vietnam War protest plans. She gets a job at The Cave where the music is more upbeat and the patrons watch her dance. A hairdressing job is abandoned when she scores an opportunity to travel to Vietnam to dance and sing for the troops. Her friend Cheryl is horrified, but Kath has little interest in and less knowledge about the war, seeing only excitement. But reality is quick to shake her. While protesters at home shake their placards, Kathleen discovers the realities of war.

The title, When the Hipchicks went to War, manages to immediately locate this novel in time and mood – the frivolity of ‘Hipchicks’ sitting alongside ‘War’ alerts readers to a conflict before the opening page is turned. Kathleen is keen to ditch school and get out into the wide, wild world, never imagining it as anything other than exciting and wonderful. She and two new friends become the ‘Hipchicks’ and are booked to entertain the Australian troops in Vietnam. When they arrive the Vietnam War is in full swing, but it’s not the party they expect. They must quickly adjust to war and its casualties. The show must go on. Naïve she may be, but as a main character she is also feisty, proactive and adaptable. Written in first person, When the Hipchicks Went to War follows Kathleen as she makes and loses friends, tastes the world and her first kiss, seizes every opportunity. Pamela Rushby gives the reader a different look at the 1960s – the freedom and conscription, opportunities and challenges. Recommended for 13-16 year olds.

When the Hipchicks Went to War

When the Hipchicks Went to War, Pamela Rushby
Lothian Books 2009
ISBN: 9780734410917

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Noodle Pie, by Ruth Starke

It made Andy feel funny inside to say – even to himself – ‘my grandmother’, ‘my aunt’, ‘my cousins’, and to see them all there in front of him. He looked to the very back of the group to see who was considered the least important family member. She wasn’t tall, so he didn’t see her until somebody moved. She had short hair and a fringe down to her eyebrows. There was a sullen expression on her small triangular face, or maybe she was just bored.

When Andy’s father, a former refugee, returns for a visit to Vietnam after twenty years, Andy goes with him. He is interested to see his father’s country and meet his relatives – but he also feels that it isn’t his country. He is Australian.

Andy isn’t too sure he likes his newfound family, either. They are rude, fighting over the gifts Andy and his father have brought, and the family restaurant Andy has heard so much about is a joke. The thing Andy finds hardest to accept is that not everyone is treated equally. His cousin Minh seems to do most of the work, but is the last to eat and receives nothing – not even respect – for her efforts. Andy is determined to change things.

Noodle Pie is an often humorous but also very insightful look into family relationships, cultural differences and the experiences of refugees. As Andy tries to make sense of his extended family’s way of life, he also learns about his father’s past, and gains a greater understanding of why things are as they are, both at home and here in Vietnam.

A fun and informative read.

Noodle Pie, by Ruth Starke
Omnibus Books, 2008

Red Haze – Australians and New Zealanders in Vietnam, by Leon Davidson

The soil in our area is Red Mud, RED-BLOODY-MUD. It drives me mad…It’s the only place in the world where you can be bogged down in mud up to you neck and get dust in your eyes.Douglas Bishop, 5RAR, letter to family, October 1966

Leeches, mosquitos snakes and more. Dust, mud, rain, rain, rain. Red Haze looks at the circumstances that brought Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the experience that is called ‘The Vietnam War’. Many people believed that if communism was allowed to spread in Vietnam that it would eventually ‘infect’ countries all the way to Australia and New Zealand. While the political battles waged at home, soldiers fought an intractable foe on hostile ground. Red Haze tracks the war from the political impetus for its beginning, through many of the well-known and less well-known battles, to the 1973 ceasefire.

Nothing could have prepared Australian and New Zealand soldiers for the environment in which they were to be asked to fight. Red Haze uses personal experiences to bring the reader close to the action and uncertainty. Davidson doesn’t pretend to have the whole story, but shows the brutality and compassion, the confusion and violence that accompanies war. The use of letters and recollections from soldiers from both sides and from protesters at home gives some understanding of how difficult a time it was. Though today’s children have little direct experience of the Vietnam war, this book can help them understand some of the issues of the wars of their time. For upper primary and early secondary readers.

Red Haze: Australians and New Zealanders in Vietnam, by Leon Davidson
black dog books 2006 ISBN 876372958