Courage be my friend: The Vivian Bullwinkel story by Jenny Davis

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As an adult reader of World War Two historical fact and fiction, I felt slight trepidation when given Courage Be My Friend: The Vivian Bullwinkel Story to review. I am familiar with the horrific story of the brutal massacre of nurses by the Japanese troops as well as the cruel ill-treatment suffered by Vivian Bullwinkel and her fellow captives and was not sure how this new release for upper middle-grade to young adult readers would be presented. Fortunately, author Jenny Davis has primarily focused on the important aspects of the strong connection between the nurses and the growing friendship between Vivian and 15 year old Edie, all the while being true to the timeline of events and glimpses of the horror suffered.

Born in Kapunda, South Australia, Vivian (affectionately known as ‘Bully’ to her friends) has been keen to join in the war effort and enlists in the Australian Army Nursing Unit. She travels to Singapore with a group of nurses and along with others already in Singapore, form an incredible bond that will support them through horrendous experiences.

Young Edie has been separated from her beloved grandfather and left with her step-grandmother who is always angry. Edie is lonely and as the only teenage girl in captive, looks to Vivian for comfort and friendship. Edie in fact provides an anchor for Vivian who constantly deals with death and deprivation but is determined to stay alive to ensure Edie does too.

Throughout this book, the tenacity, work ethic, compassion and courage shown by the Australian nurses is simply outstanding. Without the nurses those prisoners who survived the appalling conditions, malnutrition, fevers, starvation, and beatings may not have done so.

After three and a half years in captivity those who were found deep in the jungle had a devastating story to tell. Vivian Bullwinkel was determined that she would survive to tell of the massacre and the deprivation suffered by her nursing companions. Each of Vivian’s nursing companions’ names are written in full throughout the novel as a mark of respect and remembrance.

This powerful story is one that is important to be shared and one where the role the Australian nurses played in the war should not be disregarded. Teaching notes and an activity can be found on the publisher's website.

Themes: Historical Fiction, World War Two, Nursing, Friendship, Courage, Survival, Resilience, Hope.

Kathryn Beilby