Pamela Hart talks about getting to know a grandfather she never met…
My grandfather was called Arthur Freeman – ‘Freemie’ to everyone who knew him. He died several years before I was born, and all I knew about him were the few stories my father would tell me.
Some of these were both gruesome and fascinating. Freemie had fought at Gallipoli, and been sent home wounded in 1916. A shell had gone off nearby and he came back to Australia with multiple shrapnel fragments still embedded in his flesh – some so deep that they couldn’t be operated on. My father recounted how they would work their way to the surface until they were just under the skin, then fester like a pimple until Freemie popped them out. Dad would have to lance the ones on his back and pick out the small dark pieces of metal.
Dad was born in 1923, and he remembers all this quite clearly. He thinks Freemie was still getting shrapnel out up until the 1930s – 15 years after he was wounded. His left arm was so badly hurt that, to the end of his days, he couldn’t straighten his hand out all the way – a bit of a problem for a butcher, but he overcame it.
A couple of years ago, my son’s teacher asked me to come up to his class and tell them about Freemie for ANZAC Day. I took his medals and dogtags and also the documents we had, including the telegrams his sister had received when he was wounded. Since he almost died from fever after he was hospitalised, she got a whole series of telegrams, going from bad news to worse until finally she received the one which said ‘out of danger’.
Those telegrams made me very curious about Freemie’s war experiences, and started me off on the path to writing The Soldier’s Wife. I used his war record for my main male character, Jimmy, but the book concentrates on the home front and the life of Jimmy’s wife, Ruby. We never go to the front line at all, but what happens there influences everything in the story.
In the middle of all the research about 1915 fashions and what the weather was like on 4th January 1916 (the day the first telegram came), I decided that Jimmy needed to have a mate, a best friend in the trenches.
So I put Freemie into my book. I wasn’t sure if I should – after all, I’d never known him, and I wasn’t sure I had the right to portray a real person I’d never met. But somehow it seemed right that if I were using his life as my starting point that he should have a voice in the story. I worked from what little I knew of him – that he was a social man who enjoyed company (he was a founding member of Parramatta RSL); that he was brave when dealing with physical pain; that he had a sense of humour.
Probably the most influential thing I knew was a joke he used to tell. He was wounded during the retreat, one of only three or four people hurt the day before they all pulled out. My dad told me he used to say, ‘Well, of course, once I was wounded they had to pull out… couldn’t hold it without me.’ And he’d laugh.
So that was where I started – with a young man who’d put his age up to join, who liked a joke and was fiercely loyal to his mates. I built from there.
I don’t know if the Freemie in The Soldier’s Wife is anything like the real man, but I hope so. Because then this feeling I have that I know him better than I did would make sense.
Newlyweds Ruby and Jimmy Hawkins are sure their love will survive the trauma and tragedy of war. Amid the desperate battles raging in Gallipoli, Jimmy dreams of the future they planned together. In Sydney, Ruby reads his romantic letters full of love and longing. But as weeks slip into months Ruby must forge her own new life. When she takes a job at a city timber merchant’s yard, she is thrown into a man’s world fraught with complications. And as the lives of those around her begin to shatter, Ruby must change if she is to truly find her way. Is she still the same woman Jimmy fell in love with?
Inspired by the true story of the author’s own family history, The Soldier’s Wife is a heart-soaring story of passion, love and loss and learning how to live when all you hold dear is threatened.
Pamela Hart is an award-winning author for both adults and children. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney, where she has also lectured in creative writing. Under the name Pamela Freeman she wrote the historical novel The Black Dress, which won the NSW Premier’s History Prize for 2006 and is now in its third edition. Pamela is also well known for her fantasy novels for adults, published by Orbit worldwide, the Castings Trilogy and her Aurealis Award-winning novel Ember and Ash. She lives in Sydney with her husband and their son, and teaches at the Australian Writers’ Centre.