Book Review: “Underground” by Mirranda Burton (@mirrandaburton @AllenAndUnwin @ReadingsBooks @EasternRegional)

Underground: Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia’s War in Vietnam (Allen&Unwin Children’s, August 2021) by Mirranda Burton

This is the sixth and final in a series of six reviews featuring the 2022 Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

If you are going to read one graphic novel this year, make sure you choose Underground: Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia’s War in Vietnam, winner of the 2022 Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

The book started in 2011, when the author Mirranda Burton became artist in residence at Dunmoochin, about 35 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, in Australian artist Clifton Pugh‘s former studio.

We are familiar with Pugh’s legacy as a three-time winner of the Archibald Prize, including his famous 1972 portrait of former prime minister Gough Whitlam. Yet, it is rarely known that the artist had a pet wombat who was registered for military service in Vietnam in 1972.

This inspired Burton’s investigation into Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. After years of extensive research and numerous interviews, the graphic novel was born, featuring six memorable characters whose stories intersect in unexpected ways.

The first and foremost is Jean McLean, who convened the Save Our Sons Movement that from 1965 to 1973 campaigned against conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Initially they were seen as “rabble-rousers”:

“Oh for goodness sake, go home and cook your husbands’ dinners!” “Shame on you t’call yourselves Australian.” “Let our boys join the army. It’ll teach them some discipline!” “Show some respect for our diggers! What would you women know about war?”

But by 1970 the tides of public opinion had turned. When McLean and her team spend 14 days in Melbourne’s Fairlea Women’s Prison after being changed with trespass while distributing anti-conscription leaflets, 4,000 waterside workers in Port Phillip Bay went on strike in solidarity with these mothers.

Adding to the momentum was the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in May that year, with 100,000 people taking to the streets in Melbourne alone. Similar demonstrations were held in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart.

Entwined with this unforgettable page of our nation’s history are the stories of Bill Cantwell and Mai Ho, survivors of the Vietnam War on the opposite sides. Cantwell witnessed his father’s prolonged suffering from the trauma caused by the Japanese military torture on the Thai-Burma Railway, before becoming permanently injured himself in Vietnam at the age of 20.

Meanwhile, Ho was only 14 when America and its allies left Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, leaving behind “a decimated, scorched and poisoned country” where three million of Vietnamese people were killed It took years for Ho and her family to manage an escape from Saigon by boat, finally arriving in Australia as refugees in December 1982.

And, finally – having been registered for military service under the name “Hooper Algernon Pugh”, the wombat disappeared when his marble was drawn from the ballot in March 1972. Whether or not he was a conscientious objector remains unknown, but, thanks to him, we now have a stunning graphic novel, full of empathy, courage and resistance.

Note: This book review, originally titled “Must-read award-winning graphic novel”, was published under the title “Burton’s must read” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, January 24, 2023, P.15.


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