Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 224 pages; 2022.
Jack of Hearts QX11594 is an affectionate portrait of Jack Huggins, a former POW and son of a First World War veteran, as told through the eyes of his daughters, Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro.
The book has recently been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but I can see that Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed it last September, so I am not sure how I missed it.
It’s an interesting account of one man’s wartime experiences and the legacy he left behind, but it also reclaims the important role Aboriginal soldiers played in Australian history. That’s because Jack Huggins was a First Nations man who signed up to defend the country at a time when Aboriginal Australians were not even considered citizens. In this context, why did he and so many other Aboriginal men go to war, his daughters wonder.
There were many reasons why Aboriginal men and women went to serve in defence of their country. For many, it was for love of country, to defend their country and sovereign rights, for others it was for payment, security, pursuit of freedom and adventure. We believe our Father’s motivation was to follow in his Father’s footsteps …
Based on personal recollections and written in a naïve, conversational style, the book follows one man’s journey from an idyllic childhood in Ayr, in northern Queensland, to his time as a prisoner of war working on the notorious Burma-Thailand Death Railway during World War Two.
It covers his return home, where fell in love with an Aboriginal woman and got married. He died seven years later from a heart attack, aged 38, leaving behind his wife, Rita, and a trio of young children — three-year-old Ngaire, two-year-old Jackie, and Johnny, who was just four months old. (As an aside, Jackie Huggins has previously written her mother’s life story in a book titled Auntie Rita, which was published in 1994.)
The book is told in two distinct voices and while they’re not labelled as such, it’s clear that the more personal elements are Ngaire’s and the more factual ones are Jackie’s. Together, the sisters piece together their father’s story from family anecdotes, defence force records, letters, photographs and interviews with people who knew him personally.
They also retrace his steps as a soldier, where he was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work building the notorious railway, a forced labour project in which “nearly 39 per cent of all those who worked in the railway perished […] mainly from disease and malnourishment”.
As well as being a loving portrait of a man who survived against the odds, Jack of Hearts QX11594 shines a light on the role Aboriginals played in Australia’s ANZAC tradition. The sisters write that in the wars, both First and Second, “Indigenous men and women were spotlighted, welcomed, seen and recognised, serving on the frontline and protecting each other”. But when they were repatriated, it was another story:
For many returned Indigenous veterans, discrimination and prejudice flourished. They were left out of society and were not served in shops and public places, after fighting for their country. They were scorned and degraded and could not get the necessities of a good life such as employment and housing.
Jack, an only child, was one of the lucky ones. He had a good job in the post office and had been raised in a loving home. His parents were unusual in that they were Aboriginal homeowners. The sisters say that it has always puzzled them as to “why Father’s family […] remained ‘free’ people while other Aboriginal people were being herded off in droves to missions and reserves all over Queensland”. They wonder if they claimed another identity to escape, which was common practice at the time.
I had a couple of minor issues with the editing of the book — the word “very” is used repeatedly, there’s a lot of repetition and sometimes statements are made that could have been fleshed out to add more colour and vibrancy — but I’m being pedantic.
This isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. If you judge Jack of Hearts QX11594 on the sisters’ desire to learn more about their father’s short life by writing his story, it has hit its mark.
Will it make the Stella shortlist? Probably not. But this is a worthy contribution to our nation’s history, one that debunks the myth that only white Australians went to war, by quietly sharing a deeply personal account so different to what most of us have been previously told.
UPDATE (17 March): I neglected to mention that the sisters are from the Bidjara/Birri Gubba Juru nations.
I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. I also read this book because it is on the 2023 Stella Prize longlist .