Monday, 13 February 2012

Book Review - Sowers of the wind by TAG Hungerford

Sowers of the Wind : a novel of the Occupation of Japan by T.A.G. Hungerford

Sydney; Angus and Robertson, 1954

I grew up in an old timber house, the type that has a very long hallway running through the house from the front door. At the end of the hallway, before it turned to enter the living room, were two things that never moved (until my parents sold the house, long after I left home). One was a sandalwood chest that was given to my Mother by her Mother, and the other was a large Japanese Geisha doll on a hallstand. As a child I never questioned why we might have such an item in Country Australia - it was only later that I discovered that it was a gift to my Mother from one of her Uncles who served in the Occupation Force in Japan directly after World War II. I had not thought of that doll for a long time, until I read this novel.

I have written about T.A.G. Hungerford's most well-known novel, The ridge and the river, here. Reading that book inspired me to find out more about Hungerford, and to seek out other writings by him, and so to the book under review. After service in the War, Hungerford signed up for the BCOF, and Sowers of the wind is the result of that experience. The book won the Sydney Morning Herald Literature Prize in 1949, but the book was not published until 1954, possibly because the the graphic nature of the content was not appropriate reading material while Australian troops were still in Japan (the BCOF officially wound up in 1952).

Sowers of the wind follows a group of Australian soldiers from the time they arrive in Japan to begin the occupation, until the majority are sent home after their service has ended. The book is based around the Occupation Force's headquarters in Kure, and deals mostly with the troops' relationships with the Japanese people, and each other.

The main protagonist (no-one in this book is a 'hero') is Sergeant Rod McNaughton, who has control of a group of soldiers that run the docks in Kure, unloading all the material needed by the troops and hangers-on of the force. McNaughton, like many in the Force, comes face-to-face with the confusion of having to deal with the Japanese as people, while remembering how he and his mates fared in the jungle, as well as dealing with other Australians who didn't fight, but have come along for the ride to drink, whore and black-marketeer as much as they can.

In many ways, this is a deeply cynical novel. Most of the Australians are depicted as trying to get the most that they can for themselves, either to make up for what they felt they lost during the War years, or just because they can. "Wogging" (as black marketeering is called in this book) is the preserve of everyone, and those of purer mind may not have been going to the brothels, but they did have Japanese "wives", who they set up with a roof over their heads and to whom they provided food and other goods purloined one way or another.

Where The ridge and the river had a compelling narrative line running right through it, Sowers of the wind is much more episodic, with characters moving in and out of the story as Hungerford needs them to present a scene or pose a moral conundrum. The Japanese in the story are alternately shown as apes or human - Jimmu, the head storeman and his wife are used by Hungerford to show how many Japanese lost absolutely everything in the war - the picture he paints of Jimmu's wife the last time McNaughton sees her after Jimmu's death, kneeling outside her house holding the photographs of her four sons, all killed in the War, is heartbreaking.

Almost as heartbreaking are the stories of Flannery and Darcey, who's lives are ruined by their stint in the Occupation Force. Even McNaughton leaves Japan as a diminished man - as they landed he had high hopes of forging a partnership with the Japanese, and for the Australians to be good role models; but by the end of the book he is leaving a pregnant "wife", after engaging in blackmail - for despite all the good he tried to do he cannot change the essential corruption that is engendered by the soldiers literally being lords of all they survey.

Sowers of the wind is not as good a book as The ridge and the river - Hungerford has a point to make, rather than a story to tell, and it shows in the sometimes stilted writing, lack of character development, and sudden breaks in point-of-view. That said, this book is well worth reading to get a flavour of what is perhaps one of the less glorious feats of Australian arms.

Check your local library for a copy of Sowers of the wind, or you can check out a great new website,, where you can search for the best price for new and second-hand books.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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