Garry Disher is a prolific Australian writer who has published more than 40 books. He has won many prestigious awards, among them the 1993 Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award (Younger Readers) for The Bamboo Flute and the 1999 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for The Divine Wind. His crime fiction has also won major awards, both in Australia and internationally.
Disher grew up on a farm in South Australia. He completed a Masters degree in Australian history at Monash University and, later, a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University in California. He has worked full-time as a writer since 1988 and now lives on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.
The Divine Wind is set in the small town of Broome in northwestern Australia during World War II (1939–1945). Broome’s Roebuck Bay is on the Indian Ocean and the sea is a quintessential part of Hartley (Hart) Penrose’s life. It is against a background of racial prejudice and the dislocation of war that the story of Hartley’s love for Mitsy, a girl of Japanese descent, is played out.
After a carefree childhood and early adolescence, Hart and Mitsy explore dimensions of love and friendship. Hart comes to realise that relationships involve complex emotions and that one’s motives are not always admirable when dealing with other people. He quickly becomes intensely jealous of his friend Jamie Kilian’s affection for Mitsy and consequently spies on him. Furthermore, the war changes life for everyone in Broome and Mitsy is caught up in the racial vilification that festers against anyone suspected of having dealings with the enemy.
When his sister is declared ‘missing’, even Hart temporarily turns against Mitsy because of her background. Hart must overcome a tendency towards self-pity and a propensity for drifting, particularly after he is injured during one of his father’s pearling operations. Caught in a cyclonic storm while taking a foolhardy risk with his ship, Michael Penrose must accept the guilt of risking his own life, his son’s life and the lives of his crew and divers on the pearling ship of which he is the captain. Mitsy’s father is one of the divers who, after saving Hart’s life, drowns at sea, thus further complicating the young lovers’ story.
Hart must also deal with the loss of his mother, who deserts his father and returns to England, only to be killed during the London Blitz. Hart struggles to think and act independently when gross injustices occur. For example, his support for the often drunk but amiable Aboriginal stockman, Derby Boxer, is invariably prompted by the actions of others – Mitsy, his sister Alice and his father Michael. Although his behaviour overall is relatively inoffensive given the blatant racism and fear-mongering circulating in Broome during this period, Hart’s actions are not always honourable, as he himself acknowledges.
This novel invites the reader to reflect on the nature of love, on friendship and on the propensity within each individual for both loyalty and betrayal. At the heart of the drama is the struggle everyone faces to overcome their weaknesses and realise their potential for developing positive, sustaining
Hartley Penrose: The novel’s narrator; in love with Mitsy, whom he later treats abominably before attempting to reconnect with her. Rarely takes the initiative to speak out against injustices or to speak of his desires, but waits for others to act first. Drifts without real purpose following the lugger accident that badly damages his leg. Follows Jamie Kilian when he suspects him of courting Mitsy. Briefly contemplates letting Jamie drown in the Japanese attack on Broome before saving him.
Alice Penrose: Hart’s sister; speaks her mind. Is a nurse at a local hospital; later becomes an army nurse. Nearly marries Carl Venning but decides not to once she realises his predilection for racist views and acts. As she grows older, she longs to leave Broome and make something of her life.
Michael Penrose: Father of Hart and Alice. A pearling master whose desire to be at sea causes him to compromise the safety and lives of his workers. He is highly critical of racism but becomes suspicious of Mitsy and Sadako.
Ida Penrose: Mother of Hart and Alice. Looks too fine for the streets of Broome; is from England. Had been a governess to some inland children when she first met Michael. Wants calmness and greenness. Escapes the heat and multiculturalism of Broome by reading the works of 19th-century novelists, such as Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters. Suspects the Sennosukes of strange practices.
Mitsy Sennosuke (real name ‘Mitsu’): Hart and Alice’s friend. Born in Australia and fluent in English. Becomes increasingly isolated once war in the Pacific breaks out. Becomes Hart’s lover after moving into the Penrose household. Makes the first move to rebuild her friendship with Hart by writing to him after the war.
Sadako Sennosuke: Wife of Zeke. Famous for her soy sauce, which she makes in a tin shed. Works at Penrose Chandlery Supplies one day a week. Turns a blind eye to Hart and Mitsy’s sexual relationship. Zeke Sennosuke (real name ‘Imazaki’): Slim, fit and sun-browned man. Saves Hart in the cyclone. Secretary of local Japanese social club (the Nihonjin-kai). Is lost at sea and his body is never found, to the distress of Sadako and Mitsy.
Jamie Kilian: Befriended by Hart. Becomes a rival for Mitsy’s attention and affection. Enrols in the army in an effort to defend the Empire and is rescued by Hart at the end of the novel. He is killed a few days before war ends in the Pacific.
Anglocentric in his views. Has Michael and Hart removed from court when Michael protests the framing of Derby Boxer for rape and assault. Mrs Kilian: Largely ignored by her husband. Tentative in his presence. Does not articulate her own opinions and expresses only those views held by her husband.
Carl Venning: Station owner at Hartog Downs. Wealthy and confident. Initially loves Alice, whom he is ten years older than, and intends to marry her. Disliked by Hart and Ida. Treats his Aboriginal employees with more respect
than other locals, but does nothing to support Derby Boxer when he needs help. Supports the views of his racist friends. Derby Boxer: Bernadette’s brother. Raised on a mission. His father’s people were tribal blacks on Hartog Downs. Works for Carl Venning and is promoted to head stockman. Drinks heavily. Is falsely accused of raping and battering Kitty Lombadina Worms.
Bernadette: A servant at the Penroses’ place. Lives with her husband at the Penroses’ in a small room by the laundry. Has a Malay mother and an Aboriginal father. Doesn’t drink. Saltwater Jack: Born on an island in the Torres Strait. Married to Bernadette. Was in his 30s before the war but looks 70. Works on the luggers as a pearl opener. Lester Webb: Friend of Carl Venning. Disliked by Hart. Calls his wife ‘mate’, ‘matey’ or ‘cobber’. Claims that you can shoot Aboriginal people if they become difficult to control. Olive Webb: Persecuted by her husband but shares his views. Lectures Alice about station life. Speaks derogatorily about indigenous Australians. Mocked by the Vennings’ Aboriginal servant, Tilly. Major Morrissey: Army officer who visits Hartog Downs. Planning a Volunteer Defence Corps to protect Anglo-Australians from collaboration between the Japanese and indigenous Australians. Accuses Alice of not having Australia’s defence needs at heart.
Constable O’Neill: Interviews Derby about the rape of Kitty. Manipulates Derby’s language and the content of his claims to make it appear that Derby is guilty. After the Derby Boxer hearing, sees Hart and Michael Penrose as troublemakers.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT
Broome is not far from the islands that today form Indonesia but that were, at the time of Disher’s story, independent islands, some colonised by Dutch planters and farmers, and administered by the Netherlands (it was only after World War II that these islands were united as a single state known as the Republic of Indonesia). As a result, there were people of many nationalities present in Broome, particularly as traders and fishermen. Together with their wives, these traders and fishermen moved between the different islands and the mainland of Australia (note Hart’s description of the activities in Chinatown on p.9). Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders also congregated in Broome for work along with the Japanese pearl divers who lived in Broome but were not permitted to become Australian citizens. Sri Lankans were also involved in Broome’s pearling industry, some maintaining their own pearling luggers (pearl fishing boats) as early as 1889.
Broome is situated in the north-west of Australia on the coast of the Indian Ocean. At 18 degrees south of the equator, it lies within the Tropic of Capricorn, which means it is subject to cyclones in the summer. With the Great Sandy Desert to the south and east, and the Kimberley Plateau to the north, Broome is surrounded by desert and has remained a fairly isolated town even today, only readily accessible by aircraft. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a centre for the pearling industry and, again, in the last 20 years, it has become famous for the quality of its pearls.
Englishman William Dampier had first explored the area in 1688 and 1699, but until the discovery of pearl-oyster beds offshore in 1883, the site’s barren conditions had discouraged any settlement. The laying of the international telegraph cable from Java (an Indonesian island) to Broome in 1889 was another important milestone in the town’s development.
The new cable allowed the pearling industry to communicate quickly with overseas pearl markets. It was from this cable that Cable Beach took its name.
The pearling industry
Broome became the centre of a prosperous pearling trade, which declined in the 1930s and collapsed in the 1950s, only to be revived again in the 1960s with the introduction of cultured pearl production. Pearls, especially those found in their natural state, have always been treasured for their unique qualities as gems. Before the Aqua-Lung was invented, Japanese divers were renowned for their diving capabilities and were used to retrieve pearl shells from the ocean depths. The largest pearl shells in the world occurred naturally in the waters off Broome, but they became scarce, making the industry unviable, as can be seen by Michael Penrose’s abandonment of his trade just before World War II.
The motherof-pearl shell buttons, so popular again in the 1990s, were discarded in favour of the new plastic buttons that became available in the 1950s. Mother-of-pearl shell fishing was a lucrative industry until then. In Broome’s heyday there were some 350 pearling luggers employing 3000 men working out of the town. Divers went to depths of 27 metres, resulting in many deaths. Japanese divers were most numerous.
Originally, the Chinese cultivated pearls by opening the shell of a mussel, inserting small pellets of mud or tiny bosses of wood, bone or metal and returning it to its bed for about three years to await the maturation of a pearl formation. These pearls were almost always blister pearls and not the rounded pearls of the oyster shells. It was a Japanese man, Mikimoto Kokichi who, in the 1890s, perfected the production of cultured pearls by inserting a very small mother-of-pearl bead into the mollusc’s tissue, which created a round pearl that was very similar to natural pearls.
Until the 1960s, the Japanese were the sole producers of cultured pearls of quality and they guarded the secret of their production. With
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