BOOK CLUB: Only Birds Above

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Only Birds Above by Portland Jones is a historical war novel. It follows the Watkins family of Millendon, Western Australia through the First and the Second World Wars.

Arthur Watkins, a blacksmith with an amazing connection to horses, met Helen at the Guilford Races. Arthur has already joined the Tenth Light Horse Brigade. Six weeks later as Arthur’s regiment is about to leave for England, he and Helen marry.

While Arthur is overseas, Ruth their daughter is born. When the war is over Arthur returns home to a wife he doesn’t really know and a daughter to whom he is a stranger. A few years later their son Tom is born.
Arthur’s experiences overseas…the things he saw, the things he had to do and the things he can’t forget, have led to his silences, which have a tragic impact on his wife and two children.

Ruth remains on the farm and has a job working in the town.

When a wealthy man that Arthur knew, was looking for a lad that was good with figures to do the accounting for his business in the Dutch East Indies, Arthur suggests Tom for the position. Tom is sent on the next ship and has a work contract for 5 years. Unbeknown to Arthur war was heading in Tom’s direction.

Tom is imprisoned by the Japanese at Pekanbara Sumatra and sent to work on the railway where tens of thousands of allied POWs lost their lives. Tom now has a new understanding of his father.
After the war ends Tom’s family anxiously wait for any news of him.

The decision to send Tom to Sumatra weighs heavily with Arthur, as he realizes there is so much he has left unsaid to both his children.

The book is excellent. It is thought provoking. It is a sad topic that relates to any war, any soldier and any family affected by the trauma of war.

The inconceivable fact, that 136,000 horses left Australia in World War 1 but only one horse returned. That the soldiers were ordered to shoot their horses as it was too expensive to bring them back to Australia, would have had a devastating effect on each soldier.

This is a story that should never be forgotten.

Portland Jones wrote this novel, due to her love of horses and her interest in the role animals play in humanity. She started the journey of this story initially based on the story of her own great grandfather who was a prisoner of war in Sumatra in 1945.

She explains the title of Only Birds Above “Was a way of conveying a loss of religious faith. When you no longer believe in a higher power, there are only birds above you, nothing else.”

Only Birds Above is such a suitable, poignant and powerful title for this book.

An amazing read.

Thank you to Fremantle Press and Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read this great story.

A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club members are reading Only Birds Above by Portland Jones. You can read their comments below, or leave your own review.

4 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: Only Birds Above

  1. A truly heart wrenching story of what fighting in a war as a soldier can do to not only a man but his family. While reading I had a sense there is a lot of stories of similarities to tell. Arthur, as many young men couldn’t know the impact his war experience could have on his family and friends and how each reacts in their own way.
    Helen ,his wife with her own suffering, Ruth and Tom their children and how their life is turning out. Tom, working in Sumatra and being taken as a prisoner of war.
    So much to read, learn and understand in this novel. A great read which brings out many emotions.
    Thank you Portland Jones for writing this story.

  2. This is a really sad book but such a great read and beautifully written.
    Set across two World Wars Arthur Watkins a blacksmith marries Helen on the onset of the Great War. He is with the 10th Light Horse Regiment. Their whole life is before them but the war changes everything. Two children, Ruth and Tom live a life with a father suffering from his war time nightmares and a mother who can’t help her husband.
    As the children grow up Tom is sent to work in Sumatra just before the Second World War breaks out. Tom becomes a Japanese prisoner of war and works on the infamous
    Pekanbaru Death Railway.

    The lives of Tom and Arthur in both wars are interspersed with life back in Australia and how family members are coping. This interweaving of all the characters and elements of the story is done really well and makes for a pleasurable reading experience. I did not want to put the book down.

    The book reveals the horrors of war on not only the serviceman and their families but also the horses that were transported from Australia to the war in the Middle East and never to return home .

    My father was a war veteran and although he didn’t suffer the PTSD that many war veterans do my Uncle and many of my father’s fellow serviceman did. Lives changed forever by their service to our country.

    “You learn a lot of things when you go to War ……What they don’t teach you is how to live when it’s all over.”

  3. Only Birds Above by Portland Jones is set in both the first and second world wars. It is focussed on Arthur, the blacksmith, and his family.
    Arthur goes to war with the 10th Light Horse, it tells the story of his war, how he cared for the horses and of his friendships with fellow soldiers. His horrific experiences mean he returns a different man and the story follows the impact this has on his whole family.
    Arthur encourages his son Tom to go to Sumatra to work as the second world war is brewing and as a result Tom is captured by the Japanese. His appaulling treatment at the hands of his capturers help give him a better understanding of his father.
    This novel covers in detail the horror of war and its long-term impact on those involved and their families. Despite the horrors detailed at times the book is almost poetic, with beautiful descriptions of the countryside. This was a novel I found hard to put down, I wanted to find out what happened to the main characters and whether they were able to put the horrors of war behind them and lead a happier life.
    Thank you to Freemantle Press and Beauty & Lace Book Club for the opportunity to read this novel.

  4. Wow what a book! I had no idea just how moving this book was going to be when I first picked it up.

    Beautifully written ‘Only birds above’ walks through the life of Arthur and his family, and what war does not only to the man but who that man interacts with. It explores the impact of war and how our soldiers are left to ‘get on with life’ once they return.

    Whilst this is a terrible topic to discuss, Portland Jones treats it with respect and honors the struggle many men and women face when they return home. A story worth reading but not for the faint hearted!

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