Love and War in 1941 New Guinea in a new novel by Loretta Goldberg

Cover of Beneath the Bukubuk Tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I first discovered the work of Loretta Goldberg when I read her book The Reversible Mask: An Elizabethan Spy Novel in 2018.

Today, Goldberg released a new book, Beyond the Bukubuk Tree: a WWII Novel of Love and Loss, via MadeGlobal Publishing.

For this book Goldberg went back to her Australian roots and dug into her family history. The lead character, Jake Friedman, is an idealistic Jewish military doctor who hopes to spread the news of a better way to treat polio. Goldber was inspired to create Jake by  is a mysterious maternal uncle, an uncle she’d never met, but whose photograph haunted her from its place over the family dining room table as she was growing up. She tried to find out more about him. It was easy to discover that he had a stutter as a child, which he overcame by winning elocution contests – the family still kept his trophies. But more they would not tell her.

Goldberg did not give up. Further digging revealed that this uncle was in Lark Force. Lark Force was a lone battalion of volunteers sent to defend Rabaul, capital of Australia’s Mandated Territory of New Guinea. When war with Japan began, there was no intention to reinforce, withdraw or extract the men. The units were  “hostages to fortune,” left to their fate. Many were killed (often beheaded) or taken prisoner by the Japanese, others died trying to escape. In most cases, the families never found out exactly what had happened to them; Goldberg’s mother never found what happened to her brother.

Goldberg’s novel uses fiction to fill in the gaps. What gave the man in the photograph that troubled look? Could it be an inner conflict, the conflict of an orthodox Jew who realizes he is gay? Goldberg creates a beautiful love story based on this idea, a love story between two men on a doomed island. How they find the space and time to discover and grow their love for each other, while keeping their relationship a secret even as war looms, is the core of the book.

The plot not only focuses on the colonialists, but also the natives. There is a native girl who has a gift growing medicinal plants and her eye on a half-Chinese, half-white sailor who came off the same ship as Jake. Marriage to Lee will bring her more freedom to be herself, even in wartime, and she uses diplomacy and cajoling to convince her family to let her out of the traditional marriage they had planned for her. One of my favorite characters in this subplot strand is the girl’s pet cassowary who will eat anything and everything, even bullets!

This book is a thriller: the war makes its inexorable progress toward New Guinea. Some of the characters see more clearly than others what their fate will be. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, the characters at the center of the book fight for their right to self-discovery, self-expression, and the right to love whom they choose. An inspiring and thrilling book that once started, has to be finished in a sitting.

The book has already won an International Firebird Book Award for War Fiction in 2023. The award is well deserved, as Goldberg deftly conveys the feeling of being posted on a tropical island through monsoon and volcanic sulfur fumes, armed only with outdated weapons and planes, and short on medicine for treating the ever-present malaria. Do yourself a favor and forget your own troubles for a while by immersing yourself in Jake's!