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
The Land Girls Victoria Purman HQ FICTION, $29.99
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.”