Daughters of a dairy farmer from Australia’s Macleay Valley, registered nurses, Naomi and Sally Durance board the Archimedes, a hospital ship. Though they’re bound ultimately for the Greek island of Lemnos on the Western Front of the battle lines during World War I, the sisters first use their nursing skills in the blood bath of Gallipolli and the frozen trenches of France. Joined together in silent complicity by what the two consider a crime – the death of their mother who had inoperable cancer—the two hope that by nursing the wounded they will alleviate their guilt.
Thomas Kenneally, the author of "Schindler’s List," tells the story of Naomi and Sally in his latest book "The Daughters of Mars" (Atria 2013 $28). From their sheltered environment, the Durance sisters encounter some of the most horrific battle scenes of The Great War and encounter this war’s new barbarities including mustard gas. Sailing up to Lemnos, the nurses look out at the storied Greek island “now reduced from myth to the level of any other dreary island.”
As they bond with their fellow nurses and fall in love, the sisters also become closer.
"They have an arduous way towards intimacy throughout the book,” said Kenneally, the father of two daughters. “They are more intimate each with other nurses than they are with each other. And there's a poignant scene which women tell me they like, sisters — I've got two daughters — sisters tell me they like ... where one virtually says to the other, do you think we can be friends now.”
They also become ennobled as they deal with the danger, the tragedy and the horrors of war.
"It does, tragically, reveal character in some of the combatants, and horror, atrocity and soul-damaging failure on the part of many of the participants,” said Kenneally when asked if he believes that war reveals a person’s true character. “But this was a tale in which that female capacity to deal with horror on a process-line basis was something I wanted to write about.”