Aren’t Book Groups Great?

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Last night, nine ladies came together on a cold rainy night to discuss my novel, “Climbing the Coconut Tree”. As the author, I accepted the invitation to attend. I stood tentatively on the threshold of the house in Carnegie wondering what response I would get; if they had liked it; what sort of questions they might ask or even if they had read the book. Then I heard their animated chatter and laughter – it reminded me of my own book group of which I have been a member for almost twenty years. We meet every month and read books that we might never have chosen ourselves. There’s nothing better than talking about a book with others.

I was warmly welcomed and introductions were made. Penelope told me that she knew Jody a mutual friend and the ice was broken. The coffee table was covered with wine glasses, and a generous cheese and biscuit platter. The host, Lynnie had thoughtfully scattered bowls of coconut M&Ms (who knew they existed) and Bounties to provide a thematic background for the novel. Her only regret was she was unable to serve an appropriate cocktail like Pina Colada. But she made amends with a generous serve of hummingbird cake covered with cream cheese icing – delicious.

After glasses were filled and nibbles munched, the catch up chatter quickly turned to what we were all there for. Most had finished the book and were armed with great questions. Thankfully, I could answer them all. Here are sample few-:

Q. What is phosphate used for?
A. It is used as a component in fertiliser and after the second world war, demand by Australian and New Zealand farmers was high.
Q. Who lives on Ocean Island now?
A. Ocean Island is now known as Banaba and apart from a couple of hundred indigenous Banabans, it lies abandoned. It belongs to Kiribati which is the poorest nation in the world and itself  suffers from rising sea levels creating ecological refugees for parts of their population. They are a two-day boat trip away from the capital of Kiribati, Tarawa and since there is only one supply boat a year they must be self-reliant.
Q. When did the mining stop and what happened to the infrastructure on the island?
A. Mining stopped in 1979 and the roads and buildings now lay in ruin. Many buildings contained asbestos so this now adds to the ecological problems of the island.
Q. Do you think that the person accused of the murder was rightly convicted?
A. Initially I had my doubts but after reading the murder file and examining the evidence, I was satisfied they caught the right person.
Q. What drove you to write this story?
A. After reading my father’s letters recounting his life there, I realised that this was a part of Australia’s untold history. But I was even more compelled when I discovered a letter written by one of the murder victims. It was almost as if the victim was reaching out to me from the grave to tell this story.
Q. Will you write another novel?
A. Yes. I am still continuing to learn the craft of writing and am presently working on a collection of short stories. I am also conducting research on another historic novel.

I asked for feedback and we discussed the characters, life for women in 1948, mental health; the racial and industrial issues and so much more. Thankfully they had all enjoyed the book. Of course there were many more questions and the evening flew by.

Just after ten o’clock, Melinda announced that she had to go – a tap was leaking and a flood crisis needed to be averted. Dates were agreed for the next get together and farewells and thanks were made. Then I ducked out into the rain.

When someone knows someone, who knows someone, who can help.

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At dinner one night, I was telling my good friends James and Sue about my project and how it had morphed into a book of sorts. James worked for a large fertiliser company and knew someone who had worked on Ocean Island.
“Would you like me to get him to contact you?” he said.
“Could you?”I said excitedly. I could hardly wait.

A few days later, a man named Sam emailed me some information about Ocean Island – its history, its people and the mining.  He told me that he’d mostly worked on Nauru but gave me a name and phone number of someone else who had worked on the island for fifteen years, almost until the mine was closed in 1979.

I was excited and anxious. Now I could find out first hand, rather than rely on books and articles for my information. What would I say to this person? That I was writing a book? That I wanted to know what it was like to live on Ocean Island. That I wondered if he knew about the murders?

I knew if I thought about it too much, that I’d lose confidence and resolve, so the next day, after writing down my questions, I rang.

What a wealth of information I received from this generous man. He spoke to me for over an hour and told me about a group of people who had lived/or worked on all the phosphate islands – Ocean Island, Nauru and Christmas Island. They called themselves ‘The Phosphateers’ and  got together once a year to reconnect and reminisce. Soon, I was the subject of an email trail to everyone who was a phosphateer. Before long, I received responses and names of more people who had lived on Ocean Island during the late 40’s and early 50’s.

I contacted and interviewed a number of them. They’d been children in 1948 and remembered what life was like – fun and carefree. When they reached high school age, they were shipped back to Australia to continue their education at boarding school.

Everyone was only too happy to fondly share their memories and pass on the names of others who might have been able to help.I was lucky to be invited to their annual reunion held in the suburb next to mine – what luck! There, I talked to as many as I could – each generously sharing their experiences and memories – painting a picture for my imagination and my story.

But no- one could remember much about the double murders – it was too long ago. No- one knew my father either.

And even now, when I tell people where my story is set, I still find that someone knows someone who had worked or lived there and they pass on their name.

When do you tell a white lie?

My father had an operation on his appendix. The doctor and his boss each wrote to my grandparents to tell them and to also let them know that he was well.

He had always been fiercely independent and he played it down in his letter.’I’m very sorry about his appendix business Mum. The doc didn’t tell me anything about sending that cable, and I told you a fib in the letter so as not to worry you.’ I wonder what my grandmother must have thought. He had been away three months on this remote island and already two trips to hospital!

To prove how well he was and I suppose to allay any worries  he later writes,
“I’m thriving on the life up here though and reckon it’s a great place. I’m as fit as a fiddle – developing quite a few long unused muscles owing to the strenuous work and still eating like a horse.” He painted a picture of  his social life – playing tennis, dinner parties and dances.

I knew from his letters there were about 2000 workers on the Island, some with families, but for the most part, the population was male. I started imagining what it must have been like. No doubt there would have been alcohol and I wondered if a young man like him would have indulged. It was a rare day when he didn’t enjoy a beer in his adult life and he was proud to tell us that he never drank to excess.

I wondered if it had started on Ocean Island. I smiled when I read a line in one of his letters.
  ‘And I hope you’re not worrying about the manner of my liquid refreshments – the strongest drink I’ve had, or intend to have is fruit cordial, but put away an average of about four or five coconuts per day.’

I found out later that the European workers each had a daily beer ration. I learnt to read between the lines.

Where is Ocean Island?

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I began telling friends about my project. I was surprised they were interested – they wanted to know more.

“Where is Ocean Island?”
“In the middle of the Pacific,” I happily answered. But that meant nothing to anyone.
“You know, Nauru?” I said.
“Yes.”
Everyone knows about Nauru but only because of the emotional and raging debate against Australia using it to house asylum seekers.

“Well, it’s near there. About a hundred or so kilometres to the east,” I said confidentally.But I knew very little else.

I thought I’d better find out a bit more and the internet enlightened and surprised me.

I read one reference from a fellow to the question, ‘where is Ocean Island’ and he replied, “All over Australia mate.” What did he mean? I soon found out.

In the early 1900’s, Nauru had been in the hands of the Germans who mined phosphate. Albert Ellis, a young New Zealander discovered that there was tons of phosphate on nearby Ocean Island and placed a stake on behalf of the British. He negotiated with the island chiefs and paid them fifty pound a year and promised to bring in water. The islanders or Banabans ( as they were known)  thought it was a great deal considering that most of their number had been wiped out from the last long drought some years before. So at the turn of the century, mining commenced and didn’t stop until the phosphate was virtually gone in 1979. During that time, Australia managed Nauru and Ocean Island jointly with New Zealand and Britain. When the First World War broke out, the British secured Nauru from the Germans and the Australians mined it too.

However,during the Second World War the Australians abandoned both islands when the Japanese advanced and occupied most of the Central  pacific region. The islanders were treated harshly and most of the Banabans were dispersed across the other nearby islands. Food was scarce and death was the norm at the hands of the Japanese. My father must have been touched by the site of old Japanese tanks left abandoned around the island. This is a photo he took in 1948.

Abandoned Japanese Tank left on Ocean Island ( Banaba)
Abandoned Japanese Tank left on Ocean Island ( Banaba)

Today, Banaba as it is now known, belongs to Kirabati, one of the poorest nations on earth. You can just make out the speck called Banaba near Nauru on the map above. Now largely abandoned with an ecological disaster on their hands, a small number of native Banabans try to eek out a living.  The rest of their people live on Rabi, an island bought for their relocation in 1945 – some hundreds of kilometres away in Fiji.

So what is phosphate used for? It was mined and brought back by ship and used primarily by our farmers as fertiliser.

My curiosity and excitement about this island was growing. I was drawn to the place and its history and the experience my father had in the twelve months he was there. In the back of my mind, the threads of a story was brewing.

I wasn’t a writer I told myself. I didn’t know what I was going to do or how this project was going to unfold, but I knew I had to push on.

 

Turmoil

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It had been a few days before I could get back to the letters. I’d been emotionally drained after thinking about my father. Perhaps it was part of the grieving process –  I don’t know. I decided not to think too much – get it down – read and think later.

The third letter was to my grandfather – interesting. I had thought all the letters were to my grandmother. I had never known my grandfather – he had died several years before my parents had even met.The date was 30 June 1948 and my father had been away for a whole month. He had finally arrived on Ocean Island. There was a hand drawn diagram of his house and a photo of it (displayed above). Could that be him, shirtless? I wasn’t sure. There were no drones so someone must have climbed a tree to take this shot.

The next paragraph made me think this was no idyllic island paradise. He explained that the natives had gone on strike; some natives were speared; and Europeans had armed themselves with guns. I wasn’t expecting this. What had been going on? Then he talked about how hot it was, what his job was like and detailed descriptions of his meals. I re-read the part about the strikes and firearms. He was matter of fact. I tried to read between the lines; was he scared, anxious,homesick, excited? He ended the letter by advising his father to take his mother for a holiday to Brisbane to see his sister – nice touch. I’m sure alarm bells would have been ringing for his parents.

I couldn’t wait to get to the next letter, dated a week later and was frustratingly short – half a page. It mostly explained that he needed to write the letter quickly to catch the boat. There was nothing more about the strike. What was really going on that he hadn’t put into his letters? He ended it by promising to write a really long letter later that night. Lucky for me I could read his next letter in an instant. How excruciating it must have been for my grandparents to wait weeks for the next instalment. That wouldn’t work now in our age of instant gratification.

As I typed the next letter quickly, I wondered if he would update about the strike. There were descriptive passages about the weather, the people he met and his daily routine. He mentioned his boss Mr Allen, who he described as “quite a decent chap”. He joined the Rifle Club and learnt some local phrases from the natives. He seemed to be getting along well. No updates on the strike. Was he keeping that to himself so as not to worry his parents?

Here was the hard part. I wanted the letters and the story to reveal itself to me. But I knew that if I read ahead then my discipline to type it all would wane. I knew myself too well.

The Letters

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I hadn’t looked at the old camphorwood chest since I was a kid. But now I examined it, as if, for the first time.There was a large butterfly carved into the lid and other designs on the side with old scratches across the front of it. I carried it to my desk and opened the lid. Inside were piles of envelopes containing old photos and letters. One envelope was neatly labelled Ocean Island. I flicked through the photos, the handwriting on the reverse named places and dates. Thank goodness there was no digital photography then.

Then I found what I was after. The letters were folded neatly inside a large envelope. There were three piles of them. I opened the first pile and glanced at the top right hand corner; ‘C/- BPC Ocean Island, 6 June 1948’. The letter was addressed, ‘Dear Mum’; my grandmother. The letter was yellowing yet crisp in my hand; I began reading the cursive writing and imagined the excitement of the writer and the reader. The letter told of the ship’s voyage from Melbourne to Newcastle; what it was like on board; the crew and the food. It was just a typical letter home from a travelling son. Only he wasn’t on holiday – he was on his way to Ocean Island to start a new job. I looked at the date again; my father had been 18. I imagined what it must have been like back then. The war had ended a few years before and for some reason he decided to go to a small island somewhere in the Pacific. What did BPC mean? I didn’t know.

I ran my fingers down the page. I’d never really taken much interest in his story. My childhood was peppered with vague memories of his adventures in the tropics and I remembered the name of Ocean Island. I knew  phosphate had been mined there. Like most kids, I half listened to my fathers stories or not at all. I read somewhere that interest in family history reaches us in our older years. Now it was too late to ask him anything as he’d passed away four years before.

I’d finally found the time to help my mother clean out his things – he had a lot. My mother and I had sat on the carpet of his study pulling out things that he should have thrown away years ago. We laughed as we binned the old cheque stubs from the 1960’s, his handwritten to do lists, business letters in carbon, receipts for things which had long since become landfill. And that’s when I found the letters – tucked away in a small camphorwood chest. My grandmother must have saved them and given them back to him a long time ago. I wondered why he’d never mentioned them. Even my mother hadn’t remembered seeing them before.
I made my decision that day not to let the letters wallow for another sixty years – I was going to type them up and publish them so that my family and future generations could read his story.  I looked at the dates of the other two piles of letters – 1949, 1950. There were three years of history in more than 100 letters.

This is the story of what I did and what I found out. I hope you enjoy it.