Susan: Convict’s daughter, soldier’s wife, nobody’s fool, By Stella Budrikis

susan book review aldershoot 1866.jpg
Garrison town, Aldershot, England, where David Whybrew was stationed in 1871. 

Book Review by A. G. Moore

Stella Budrikis’ excellent biography, Susan, takes readers on a journey through the hardscrabble existence of Australia’s early European settlers. The eponymous Susan is Susan Mason, the author’s great–great grandmother.  The characters in this book are real people who struggle in the harshest of circumstances.  Fortune, will and physical endurance allow some to reach maturity and raise families.  Survival is a lottery in which perseverance and serendipity play equal roles.

Nature granted Susan the ability to bear numerous children.  Fortune took many of these from her.  This was a common occurrence at that time, but more likely to befall those who were crowded into the hull of a ship or crammed into a fetid slum where immigrants congregated.

Susan eventually migrated to England, where she settled with her husband, David Whybrew, a soldier in the British army. David’s income barely supported the growing Whybrew family. Throughout her sojourn in Australia and England, Susan had repeated contact with the police. Indeed much of the record cited in this book is derived from official court records.   Budrikis does not shrink from the less attractive aspects of Susan’s life. It is the author’s unflinching treatment of her subject that renders her narrative credible.

One of the several Whybrew children who did reach maturity, Eliza, was destined to be the author’s great grandmother. Eliza’s life followed a very different path from Susan’s. This may have been partly due to temperament and partly to the influence of her husband, William Beales.  Beales and his family were active in the Salvation Army.  This involvement likely offered Eliza the sort of stable guidance that had not been available to Susan.

In the “Afterword” to Susan, Budrikis wonders if she’s done right by her forbear in telling this story  without attempting to conceal blemishes. Budrikis writes, “I hope that by telling her story I have given her, and other women like her, a recognition that they were denied in their lifetime”.  Indeed she has. Susan Mason made choices that put her afoul of the law and forged for her a chaotic path through life.  But those choices also helped her to survive.  Susan Mason and thousands of others had only their wits and their determination to help them prevail over daunting odds.  They survived.  When life is stripped to its barest essentials, that becomes the ultimate test of character.

Stella Budrikis has written a book about more than family legacy.  It is about a time and place in history, about pioneers who were essential to the foundation of Australia.  The book is informative and entertaining.  I highly recommend it.

 

Ms. Budrikis maintains a website that traces her family history.  It is a fascinating read.

 

 

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The Battle of Turkey Thicket, By Christopher Russell: Book Review

philip hughes grave
This is the gravestone that marks the resting place of Philip Hughes in Arlington National Cemetery

On June 27, 1950 Harry Truman ordered American forces into South Korea. The purpose of this action was to help repel North Korean troops that had crossed the 38th Parallel. It would be two and half months before significant reinforcements would be sent to buttress the small American contingent. By the time these fresh recruits arrived, the hero of this book, Private Philip Thomas Hughes of the 19th Infantry, 24th Infantry Division, had fallen. His demise came just three days before the U. N. intervention and a mere twelve days after his eighteenth birthday. The Battle of Turkey Thicket, by Christopher Russell, offers insight into the chaotic early days of the Korean War and provides an explanation for how young Philip Hughes found himself at the front line in a war for which he, and the United States, were poorly prepared

In writing this book, Russell has done a service to every soldier who ever fought in war. The details of Philip Hughes’ life are often murky. This was a boy who was not born to advantage. He was orphaned as an infant and sent to live in an institution. At the age of two, he was adopted. From the account of this book, it seems that the circumstances in that adoptive home were not conducive to a happy childhood.

Philip, and his brother, Frank, ran away in 1949, when they were teenagers.   After that, neither boy was welcome back home. They ended up in a reformatory, though they had not committed a serious offense. Their mother simply found them to be unmanageable, so she turned them over to the state. Under the circumstances, the military seemed like a reasonable option to Philip. The country was not at war, he would have the opportunity to travel, and he would receive training. His mother did not object.

Philip was sent overseas, to Japan, where U. S. Occupation forces were supervising Japan’s post-WWII transition. It was while he was in Japan that the North Korean incursion occurred. Philip and other soldiers stationed in Japan were sent into combat. These soldiers were not seasoned fighters. Battlefield equipment was left over from WWII and it was not in great shape. Supply transport for the soldiers in the field was haphazard. The troops were cold, hungry and sometimes actually lost in the rough South Korean terrain. Clean water was in short supply, sanitation was “abysmal” and medical care was substandard. According to Christopher Russell, “During the first year of the Korean War, 60 percent of U. S. troop evacuations were disease related.”

Russell has ably managed a difficult task in writing this book. He has researched the scant details of Philip Hughes life and has noted when sections of the book are not supported by the record. Much of the narrative is derived from extrapolation or third person accounts. Russell does not blur the line between what he knows for certain and what is likely to have happened. As a result, the reader is grateful that the story as told can be relied upon.  Still…there is a desire to know more about the young soldier. To Russell’s credit, he does not give in to the temptation to fill in the blanks with a faux account.

I wish everyone would read this book. The Korean War is largely forgotten in the United States, although Korea is much in the news these days. Millions of civilians were killed or wounded during the war.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fell in battle.  Approximately 36,700 of the fallen were American.  And yet, the fallen, to many Americans, are a minor footnote to history. Christopher Russell’s book reminds us that the lives of the fallen matter, and that their sacrifice should be honored.

The Battle of Turkey Thicket is the story of an orphan, of a soldier, of an American War. I highly recommend this book.

A. G. Moore September 2017

 

 

The Accidental Anarchist, By Bryna Kranzler: Book Review

Jewish refugees Liverpool 1882
Jewish refugees from Russian pogrom, Liverpool, England 1882


Bryna Kranzler’s The Accidental Anarchist traces the adventures and misadventures of Jacob Marateck, the author’s grandfather. The book is based on Jacob’s diaries, which were written from memory. The diaries document Jacob’s personal history and are part of the Marateck family legacy.

Jacob Marateck was witness to dramatic events in Russian history. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War, conspired with revolutionaries and was exiled to Siberia. Eventually, he followed the only path that would insure his survival: He emigrated.

Jacob’s saga begins when he is conscripted into the Russian army. The naive youth stumbles through a series of calamities from which he manages, improbably, to escape. He brings along with him on his travels three abiding tools that get him through the adventures: a clever mind, an abiding sense of humor, and an unshakable faith. That faith, in my view, more than anything else, becomes the spine of this story.

When Jacob sets off for the army, his family, and just about everyone who knows him, gather and bid him goodbye. Ahead of him lies the unknown. Behind, an insular society, one that has provided family, friends and moral compass. What will the world, what will the Russian army, do to Jacob? His father offers advice that will stay with Jacob and protect him from the mischief of outside influences. “Be a Jew”, his father instructs. We see throughout the book that it is this injunction, and Jacob’s adherence to it, that determine the course of his life and his character.

His father’s words ring in Jacob’s ears as he marches to war. They provide strength as he struggles to resist temptations . “Be a Jew”. Conforming to his mandate means conforming to the laws of the Torah, even when hunger and carnal desire strike.

Of course, being a Jew in imperial Russia is not an identity Jacob can easily deny. Antisemitism pervades every aspect of Russian society. It is inescapable in the marketplace, the courts and the army.

Although Jacob’s journey takes him to war, prison and exile, his tone is never grim. The book has an almost picaresque quality. Even more than Bryna Kranzler’s art, I believe it is Jacob’s humor that makes his story enjoyable.

The essential truth of Jacob’s recollections is born out by other material from the same era. Tolstoy’s Resurrection, for example, describes an irrational court system, a decadent military and a brutal process of exile. Resurrection is not simply a novel. It was Tolstoy’s attempt to expose flaws in Russian society and government. The book has been faulted for being a screed rather than a work of fiction.

Byrna Kranzler has done a skillful job editing and organizing her grandfather’s diaries. After his death, associates and family recognized the value of his unique record. They preserved the diaries and transcribed them. Kranzler explains that she is third in the line of this legacy project. She edited and consolidated the material further. Consolidation involved taking liberty with details to create an entertaining story. The result is a blend of history, memoir and novel.

Overall, The Accidental Anarchist may be taken as a genuine reflection of the diarist’s experience. I would have enjoyed reading the originals, in translation, but most readers would probably prefer this more organized rendition. The Accidental Anarchist is a well-written and worthwhile book.

A. G. Moore     August, 2017