As Australia readies itself for the jingoism of ANZAC day, I thought it a good time to read Rachel Bin Salleh’s new picture book, Alfred’s War to my kids. It’s a powerful story that redresses some of the unbalanced national mythology around Australians’ contributions to World War One.
In the book’s opening pages we learn that as an older Indigenous man, Alfred lives outside, sleeping under the stars on the outskirts of town. Years ago, he decided to sign up for “adventure and travel” and served in the Great War. Like many other Aussies, Alfred came home from the war injured. But unlike his other soldier mates, “his bravery was not a part of the nation’s remembering. He was one of the forgotten soldiers”. Many years later he still lives on the fringes of society.
The simple but powerful message of Alfred’s story is that although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were “allowed” to enlist in the armed forces from 1917, when they returned home with their physical and psychological injuries, they weren’t supported by the government or veterans’ institutions, nor were they part of the nation’s commemorations. Their sacrifice wasn’t insignificant either: nearly 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander men fought during World War One.
The wonderful thing about Alfred’s War is that although it’s communicating a particularly weighty message, it does it lightly. Masters Six and Eight were captivated by the bombs and aeroplanes (rolling of the eyeballs!) but they also recognised Alfred’s story as a sad one.
The delicate illustrations by Samantha Fry are a lovely complement to the story; depicting the militaristic scenes with beautiful pathos.
I’m loving the current wave of children’s books that convey egalitarian messages powerfully and without condescension. (Mem Fox’s I’m Australian Too is another excellent example of this).
While I wish these kinds of books were around when I was first learning about our nation’s history, I’m grateful that at least I can read them to my kids. Australia is getting better, slowly, at acknowledging the injustices suffered by its Indigenous peoples. Books like Alfred’s War help to advance this gradual national awakening.
Thanks to Magabala Books for providing this book in exchange for an honest review.