NO FIELD DAY

A NEW NOVEL TELLS THE BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS STORY OF THE UN­SUNG WOMEN WHO WORKED THE PADDOCKS AND HAR­VESTED THE CROPS DUR­ING THE SEC­OND WORLD WAR

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It was a vague ref­er­ence on so­cial me­dia that led for­mer journalist Victoria Purman down the rab­bit hole of dis­cov­er­ing all she could about what she be­lieves is one of Aus­tralia’s great un­told war sto­ries. But her lat­est novel is not about se­cret mis­sions or un­recorded bat­tles, rather the work of the Aus­tralian Women’s Land Army, a force of around 6000 women de­ployed to fill agri­cul­tural jobs dur­ing World War Two.

Victoria’s lat­est novel The Land Girls pro­vides a won­der­ful in­sight into the lives of young women, many of them from cities, who stepped into the boots of farm work­ers to keep the coun­try fed.

“I didn’t even know we had a Land Army in Aus­tralia when I first stum­bled on it,” Victoria says. “I knew there’d been a British Land Army — there’s a BBC tele­vi­sion se­ries

(Land Girls) about it — but not here.

“I looked fur­ther into it and it re­ally sparked my in­ter­est. Once I dived in, some­times I didn’t come up for hours.”

Among the of­fi­cial records and hand­ful of books, Victoria dis­cov­ered a trea­sure trove of oral his­to­ries from six for­mer Land Army mem­bers, recorded in 1990 and held by the Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial.

“I was blown away by what th­ese women did that we didn’t even know they did,” Victoria says. “By 1941, two-thirds of male agri­cul­tural work­ers had en­listed so th­ese women saved many small towns, kept economies go­ing and kept Aus­tralia fed. They were mainly working-class girls, many from cities, who worked long hours in

phys­i­cally de­mand­ing, hard labour jobs and they didn’t think they were any­thing spe­cial.” In­deed the work of the Women’s Land Army was largely for­got­ten after it was dis­banded in 1945.

Victoria re­vives this chap­ter of Aus­tralia’s war his­tory through three char­ac­ters: the young, naive Betty, a shop­girl from Syd­ney; 30-year-old Flora, a forth­right spin­ster from Mel­bourne, and the well-to-do Lily who signs up as much to flee her over­bear­ing Ade­laide fam­ily as to do her bit for the war.

The novel weaves a rich tale of their per­sonal and fam­ily sto­ries, the nar­ra­tive un­fold­ing against a well-drawn pic­ture of ev­ery­day life in wartime Aus­tralia. It also clev­erly cap­tures the pre­vail­ing at­ti­tudes of the day. While the Land Army girls were feted in many small and ru­ral towns, there were oth­ers who were less than im­pressed, some even ac­cus­ing the women of only sign­ing up to look for hus­bands.

“I found a record of a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial of the time who said city girls wouldn’t be ‘of much use’ in the Land Army and that the work would prove too hard and heavy for them,” Victoria says. “You’ve got to look at ev­ery­thing in con­text of the era though. In the end, they proved him wrong.”

Victoria paints a pic­ture of lives lived and friend­ships forged among Land Army women while per­form­ing back­break­ing work, of­ten while liv­ing in ba­sic, com­mu­nal con­di­tions.

The fear for sweet­hearts, hus­bands and broth­ers serv­ing over­seas is a con­stant un­der­cur­rent, just as it was in the day.

“What I wanted to show was how the lives of th­ese women and the women them­selves changed dur­ing the war,” Victoria says.

“We know that men didn’t come back the same, but many women were also changed by the war. They were al­lowed to do men’s work for the first time — jobs like stenog­ra­phers and tram con­duc­tors. They worked in mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries.

“They were paid less but they were lib­er­ated by it. For many of them, it gave them a taste of independen­ce.”

Victoria says lis­ten­ing to the oral his­to­ries of the Land Army women was fas­ci­nat­ing.

“One com­mon thread was that after the war they said they just couldn’t set­tle down. It was as though they wanted some­thing more and that the war had changed them as peo­ple. Ac­tu­ally, two of the Land Army girls took off to travel to New Zealand after the war. That would have been very un­usual in the day but they had the means to do that as well, to have that dream.”

It is per­haps no sur­prise Victoria’s next novel will be set in Aus­tralia’s post-war pe­riod. It won’t be a fol­low-on from The Land

Girls, but will look at the long-reach­ing con­se­quences of the war and what men and women had to wres­tle with re­sum­ing their lives in peace­time.

As with her de­but novel, The Last of the

Bonegilla Girls, set in the Bonegilla Mi­grant Camp in the 1950s, Victoria has crafted an en­gag­ing tale from a foun­da­tion of ex­ten­sive re­search that de­serves its place in the canon of Aus­tralia’s wartime-in­spired fic­tion.

“THEY WORKED LONG HOURS IN PHYS­I­CALLY DE­MAND­ING, HARD LABOUR JOBS AND THEY DIDN’T THINK THEY WERE ANY­THING SPE­CIAL.”

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