A History Of The Great War by Peter McConnell

‘The Sabbath, for Mrs Mitton, was always something in the nature of a red letter day.’

Mrs Mitton is an elderly lady, when the story opens, living in her home outside Bairnsdale. She looks forward to church on Sunday, followed by her preparations for a roast dinner. And she remembers.

She remembers her parents, emigrants from Britain, farmers in East Gippsland. She remembers 1914, when as Ida Hallam and working as a shop assistant in Bairnsdale, she meets Ralph Mitton a land surveyor. Their plans to marry are put on hold when Ralph enlists to fight in the Great War. Ralph returns, a changed and damaged man. He is in constant pain because of the shrapnel fragments in his legs. He and Ida marry, they have two sons. Ralph is unable to work: he is bad-tempered and drinks too much but his pension and the money Ida makes from her needlework keeps them going.

Reading this novel transports me back sixty years, to the home of my grandparents in Launceston: net curtains catching the breeze, the wooden kitchen table scrubbed white, my grandmother’s exquisite needlework stored in the linen press. They were born around the same time as the Fittons and were each shaped by their experiences of the Great War. My grandfather was in the First AIF, he was medically discharged and returned to Tasmania before the war ended. My grandmother lost her intended husband in the conflict: my grandparents met and married in 1918.

I bring myself back to the novel, to the Fittons, to hardship and tragedy. And to Ida Fitton’s mysterious trunk in the parlour. We learn, at the end, what is in that trunk. I hoped that Ida’s work would survive long enough for her granddaughter to understand, value, and keep it.

I found this novel very moving. Yes, it is a low-key, detached telling of a story which would be repeated in many homes in every state of Australia. Ironically, I think it is the detached telling of Ida’s story which made it resonate so strongly for me. Images and mannerisms that remind me of loved ones long gone.

‘Time can never be stopped.’

And thank you, Lisa, for drawing my attention to this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith