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Realities of War
by John Doyle

WHEN ERNEST HILLEN was a boy he lived on a plantation in Indonesia, not knowing that an idyllic childhood was about to end abruptly. One day his father was taken away. Soon afterwards, Hillen, his mother, and his brother were moved by Japanese soldiers to a prison camp for women and children. For the duration of the Second World War, Hillen moved from one atrocious camp to another. As he grew from childhood - he was eight when the soldiers came - to adolescence he suffered hunger, saw starvation, and witnessed appalling brutality.

All of this is recounted in The Way of a Boy, without self-pity, sentimentality, or bitterness. In fact this book achieves a remarkable tone of innocence as events of defilement and degradation are described. Hillen (an associate editor of Saturday Night) has managed to maintain a boy's-eye view of experiences that are recalled at the distance of half a century.

The book opens with a dreamlike scene of intrusion: a wild boar is sniffing around for food under the raised floor of a quiet house in the tropical night. Soon after, a mad dog is put down. These are portents of events and emotions to come. Eventually there is barbarism, hunger, and the revelation that the world can be a place of incomprehensible horror.

The first camp was simply an unexpected adventure for a small boy, a place for children to roam and make up games to chase away the tedium. Even the adults - all women - found entertainment. The Japanese soldiers were harsh but bearable tyrants. With each move to another, more crowded compound, conditions got worse. As he describes the gradual descent into permanent hunger, Hillen's style takes on an intensity that is quietly mesmerizing. The strength, dignity, and grace of the women is constantly reiterated. There is nothing banal about the qualities that are celebrated, and the women are never presented as cliched figures of endurance. This book develops through fragments of a young boy's discovery, and it is more about the development of a young mind than the creation of a young man.

Certain scenes stand out for their establishment of the brutal, grinding reality of war. A small Japanese soldier slaps a woman who is bowed in front of him. The blows reach a frenzy but the woman doesn't fall and then, slowly, she rises to her full height to look down on him with greater strength than his brutish military mind can comprehend. There is a scene of appalling, oppressive dread as hordes of women and children are moved slowly on a crowded train; the stench of their degradation and fear is rendered with raw force.

The situation of women trapped in war camps in the Far East is almost a dramatic cliche by now, after numerous TV series and movies. Hillen, however, presents the situation as seen through the eyes of a child -and that lends the experience of prison and war a clear, psychological penetration that is unusually powerful. This is a book about war, the steadfast strength of women, and the growth of a sensibility. Hillen writes with such effective skill and achieves such a quiet poignancy that he goes right to the human, central experience of war's malevolence.


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