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The Leonard Girls by Deborah Challinor

Deborah Challinor is well-established as an historical writer with an impressive list of fiction titles featuring the fortunes of women in colonial New Zealand and Australia. The Leonard Girls is the last in a series of novels collectively labelled "The Restless Years" set in the New Zealand of the 1950s and 1960s and is the story of two sisters who experience the Vietnam war in different ways.

In 1969, Rowie Leonard volunteers to nurse wounded New Zealand and Australian troops in Vietnam. She experiences heat, front-line medical crises, confusion, difficulties, excitement and heartbreak. Her younger sister, Jo, is a student at Auckland University, a folk singer and anti-war protester. But, attracted to professional soldier Sam Apanui who is home on leave from a stint in Vietnam, Jo starts to feel less sure about her stance. She finds herself taking the opportunity to join New Zealand rock band Dark Horse as a singer on a tour of South Vietnam to entertain ANZAC troops, hoping to be able to see her sister Rowie and to further her relationship with Sam while there.

The story revolves around these three characters: Jo, Rowie and Sam take turns to describe their perspectives as they are confronted with the realities of the war in Vietnam and navigate the personal challenges they experience. The narrative dips into the minds of each of these three characters as it moves forward and the use of past tense reminds the reader that these fictional characters, while their experiences are real, visceral and personal, are situated within a factual framework of already prescribed and known historical events. Through other sympathetically drawn characters the reader encounters death on active duty, living with a heart defect, losing a leg on the railways and as in real life there are so many strands and individuals that eventually recounting events rather than illuminating the feelings and reactions is necessary to draw the story together at the end.

Clearly much historical research has gone into Deborah Challinor's novels and her PhD study over twenty years ago into the experiences of New Zealand soldiers in Vietnam was certainly a good basis to start from. Updating this further with reading, watching films, listening to music and interviewing nurse and soldier veterans has created a real sense of the lived experience of the times.

The blending of fiction with fact engages the reader with the fortunes of the characters but also works to give a sense of the attitudes and mores, and the cultural and social environment of the time. Descriptions of the nylon stockings worn by nurses, sequinned mini-dresses of the female singers and references to the songs played and performed by the band will bring back memories to those of us over sixty but will send many younger readers who have no first-hand knowledge of the era to check out music videos and fashion photos. Using words like "in a huff", "knackered", "shot to buggery", "stuff it", and "bloody hell" and mentions of the Southdown freezing works, drinking at the pub , Kings Cross in Sydney, Sir Brian Barrett-Boyes, and even a reference to Dr Herbert Green of "Unfortunate Experiment" infamy help to embed Jo, Rowie and Sam’s stories in New Zealand and Vietnam in the late 1960s.

The fictional characters' experiences are deftly woven into the historical context of the Vietnam War to reveal, in a very readable way, this significant time in New Zealand history as the lived experience of ordinary people.

Reviewer: Clare Lyon

HarperCollins Publishers


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