The Leonard Girls by Deborah Challinor – 2022

It’s 1969, Joanne Leonard is at university, playing in a folk trio, a member of the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM), and fiercely opposed to the war in Vietnam. Jo’s sister, Rowie, is an army nurse passionate and excited about her up-coming tour to Vietnam, where she will be caring for young Kiwis and Australians stationed there. One of those young men is their distant cousin, Sam Apanui, doing his job as a New Zealand soldier in Vietnam. It is a job he took to avoid ending up working the freezing works like his brothers, but it is still a job he is proud of. The Vietnam War will change all their points of view, and all their lives.

When Sam takes a brief trip home to visit his seriously injured Dad in hospital, he meets Jo again, who sings folk songs at the father’s bedside “If Sam had had a hammer, he would have put it through Jo’s guitar.” They are attracted to each other despite their opposing views, which over coffee they can’t seem to avoid: “I didn’t sign up to kill people. That’s not why people join the army.”

Sam returns to duty and much of the The Leonard girls is set in the steamy heat, ubiquitous dust, and squelchy mud of Vietnam. But this is not the surreal nightmare of the Vietnam of American popular culture – the human ear garlands and the drug induced manias – that is carefully disposed of early in the novel. This is the Vietnam War as experienced by the ANZAC troops. Not seen through drug glazed eyes, but with eyes that try to rationalise the real horrors they witness.

Aotearoa in the 1960s was probably no more racist or misogynist than it is today, but these prejudices were more blatant, and more generally accepted. Rowie is soon disillusioned with Vietnam, and she is trying to find a way to endure her year of service. She falls into racist thinking, even trotting out the persistent “they don’t value human life as much as we do” trope when talking about the Vietnamese. She comes face to face with the boys whose bodies have been maimed by the war, and she finds few people with whom she can share her shock.

Unlike Rowie, Sam has Eddie, his mate from childhood, to confide in. Even though in charge of separate groups of soldiers, they share a tent and spend all their time together. They also share their thoughts on the war, their fellow-soldiers, and Sam’s deepening feelings for Jo, with whom he has taken up a long-distance relationship. He is pleased when he hears she has left the folk trio, Grafton Road Players, and that she has joined another band, Dark Horse.

Jo’s university studies have taken a back seat while she pursues her singing. She has gotten off-side with other members of the PYM, being able to separate the political decisions behind New Zealand’s participation in the war and the young men at the front – something the other members don’t seem able to do. And her growing affection for Sam, with a dollop of fate, sees her join Dark Horse, a group headed to Vietnam to entertain the ANZACs.

When Jo reunites with Rowie in Vietnam, she is shocked at the change in her sister, who she always thought of as the perfect one in the family. Rowie is smoking and drinking, she has suffered a personal tragedy “love and lust always burn much, much hotter in a war zone”. Rowie now recognises that every death is a “ripple in a pond” of sorrow. She is finding it hard to manage the cognitive dissonance of her experiences and her task: “Nurses provide professional care and the comfort of a well-made bed, a soothing voice and reassuring encouragement.”

Rowie has visited a nearby orphanage, full of babies and children left by women who have been raped by foreign troops, or who have fallen pregnant while working as prostitutes. And she witnesses the mysterious birth deformities of many of the babies – but refuses to believe the head of the orphanage, Sister Theresa’s, belief that they were caused by American defoliants. But Rowie is starting have her doubts about everything. She doesn’t understand those who enjoy the work at the army base “It’s weird. I think being close to death, living on the edge like this all the time, makes some people think they are really alive.”

Jo certainly feels the immediate threat of death during one genuinely scary drive from the main base Nui Dat, where Sam is stationed, to Vung Tau, where Rowie’s hospital is. She also experiences the difference from the ANZAC bases when visiting the U.S. Military Base at Long Binh. It is a tiny encapsulation of the U.S. – racial tension among the troops, and the excitement and dangers brought by free market enterprise. Jo’s stint in Vietnam is hot and confusing, both for her and Sam. He thinks about life on the road for members of a band “in which you tolerated meagre pay, endless travel, and unstable personal relationships. He nearly smiled as he realised he’d just summed up being in the army.”

The novel considers the moral ambiguity of war, how in the thick of conflict, the right course of action is not always the safest one. Sam does a 180 on his view of his job: “it aptly described what they were: hunters and killers of men.” The Leonard girls doesn’t shy from the toll that the war has on the characters, both physically and mentally. And it backgrounds the story of the war with men trying to deal with serious trauma back home – Sam’s dad with his multiple workplace injuries, and Jo and Rowie’s father who lost an arm in the 2nd World War.

The book is full of the 1960s – Mum deodorant, beehive hairdos, smoking on commercial flights, Indian restaurants unknown in New Zealand. And the lingo – “what a dag”, “grouse”. In the text te reo words not having macrons. The Leonard girls is the fourth and final installment of Challinor’s The restless years series. Through the book are characters and family lines we know from previous books. At the end, a cycle is played out that nicely finishes the Vietnam arc. Then there is the Epilogue, which fills in some details and furthers the stories of characters we have just read about, but also refers to situations outside the scope of the book, but which either finish off plot lines running through the series, or maybe are set ups for a further series.

Being part of a series means we don’t get to explore some of the aspects of the story a reader might want to, such as the Agent Orange atrocities. Challinor manages this by an Author Note, which gives the reader copious information about the Vietnam War and aspects of it touched on in the story. The Leonard girls can be read as a stand-alone or as the conclusion to a series. Whichever way you read it, it is a moving and very human-scale consideration of the moral complexities of war.

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