Melinda Tognini is one of the most generous writers I know – always looking to encourage other writers, to tell other people’s stories, and to begin conversations on her blog. I was thrilled that her book, Many Hearts, One Voice: The Story of the War Widows’ Guild in Western Australia was finally published in 2015 by Fremantle Press, and embarrassed I am only reviewing it now.
The War Widows’ Guild began after World War Two as women whose husbands had been killed banded together for support and to advocate for recognition and benefits. The surprise for me reading Many Hearts is how hard these women had to fight for those things; I had wrongly assumed the Australian government would have been generous to them without any pressure. Instead, it is only through advocacy – by turns patient and noisy – that they have gained the support they now have. The book weaves the history of the organisation with the life stories of the women who have been a part of it. It places this in a wider historical context, things like the effects on the organisation of shifts in gender roles and society’s values, and new wars from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Reading the book as a pacifist, it serves as a picture of the long shadow war casts over lives, the “many hearts” broken. While I doubt many of the widows share my pacifism, they are more aware than anyone of the cost of war. I was also struck by the significance of ritual for war widows. One of their continuing fights has been for recognition in ceremonies remembering the war dead, especially the opportunity to lay wreaths during these events. It speaks to the way in which, in a largely secular country, remembrance and the Anzac legend function as a civil religion. In such a system, it’s only right that war widows have a place of honour.
I’ve edited several organisational histories, which makes me appreciate even more Melinda’s achievement in Many Hearts. Organisations will tend to require detail (the names of many key players and often repetitive events); encourage cosiness or self-congratulatory anecdotes / memories; and discourage the writer from playing up drama and scandal. Melinda negotiates all these challenges very well within the conventions of the genre to create an engaging narrative. In every respect, it is so well-balanced. Balanced in its mix of the personal, the organisational, and the big picture; balanced in its use of oral history, archival documents, and newspaper reports; and balanced between respectfulness and truthfulness.
The book has been well published by Fremantle Press. Along with many photographs, I appreciate the reproduction of a number of key documents. It brings the reader into the history-writing process, allows them to glimpse the sources.
Many Hearts comes at the right time, when the origins of the organisation are still just within living memory. It is able to preserve the voices and experiences of women which otherwise would have been lost. At a talk Melinda gave at the War Widows’ headquarters, I had a sense of the excitement of the members that their story has been told.