THE BUSH SOLDIERS by John Hooker
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THE BUSH SOLDIERS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Five stranded soldiers--two British, three Australian--trek across a bleak stretch of Australia in August 1943, destroying anything that might help the invading Japanese. . . and trying to survive. The central figure, though less than commanding, is Geoffrey Sawtell, 45, somberly dutiful member of the Australian Volunteer Defence Corps, whose life-story is offered in chronological chunks of interspersed flashback: his conflicted childhood, with a primly religious mother and a freethinking, boozing father; his disillusioning Great War stint in the Passchendaele trenches, numbly coming home with only two things in mind (""he had been in No Man's Land and there was no God""); his marriage to modern-woman Marcia, fiercely feminist, anti-military, atheistic; Depression-era unemployment, with searches for work against an Australian Grapes of Wrath background; the humiliation of Marcia's infidelity/desertion, the puzzlement of changing times, the WW II re-enlistment. So now Sawtell, still a ""patriot"" despite all, is determined to follow his orders (""harass, deny and destroy""). With his younger Corps-mate, rowdy racist Frank Counihan, he seeks out the English troops in the area--finding only a pathetic threesome: Major St. John Jackson, playing Gilbert & Sullivan in a deserted hut; chaplain Sergius Donaldson; and Australian lad Kevin O'Donohue. And the five decide to travel the 400 miles to Broken Hill, where a vital zinc mine should be blown up before the Japanese get there. But the horseback journey, unsurprisingly, becomes a nightmare--dragging food and supplies and explosives along, foraging for liquor, searching for unpoisoned water, meeting the occasional ""bloody Abo"" (Counihan savagely beats one up), stealing horses. . . while cultural differences smolder. And, after Broken Hill, the trek becomes an even more desperate one, heading north, away from the Japanese--but reaching a horrific final battle with a different, well-earned enemy. Hooker (Jacob's Dream) never quite makes Sawtell--politically naive, humanly admirable--a fully credible or dramatically developing hero; the other characters, too, remain slightly remote. But, though slowed down by flashbacks, the grim journey is steadily, grittily vivid--with quietly mounting tensions, unsensationalized ordeals, and a powerful sense of the stark, vast Australian landscape.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Viking