Dr Gary Lewis is Australia’s preeminent co-operatives’ historian and has published and lectured extensively in the field. However, when it came to documenting his father’s Great War experience it was soon apparent that his stock in trade, historiography, was unsuited to the task. Lewis didn’t want simply to recount genealogical facts or sustain an argument, as for military history, and he certainly is not in the business of hagiography. Rather, he wanted to evoke his father’s spirit, to delve the inner world of a young man asking all the big questions about life in a situation where life might cease next heartbeat. Conventional historical non-fiction didn’t work for this.
‘Wounded’ is Lewis’ first excursion into historical fiction (or creative non-fiction?) and he didn’t choose the genre lightly. As a historian and a Digger’s son he was aware of the responsibility he bore to not distort, sensationalize or idealize real events and characters for literary effect, believing this to be disrespectful not only to service personnel and civilians in whose backyard the war was fought, but to his own dad. Wondering nontheless what it must have been like for his father caught up in the relentless horror of the Great War, he became as interested in exploring the inner life of the young man as he was in the actual events of the war.
Why? Because Lewis grew up in a household where the Great War set the tone for just about everything happening in his family; always there, rumbling in the background: his father’s gas-affected lungs, the dermatitis, the trench-related rheumatism, the wounded shoulder, the sleeplessness, nightmares and dramatic mood swings – and the drinking. He wanted to understand more about the psychological and emotional injuries his dad carried from the war, decades after it – the wounds.
Like so many who served, Lewis’ father seldom spoke of the war and, in writing ‘Wounded’, Lewis was conscious of that and the need to respect his silence. If he was to tell the story of his dad’s war experience, he concluded, he must invent a character existing independent of familial considerations. Ploughing through reams of primary sources, diaries and official war records, gradually an impression of the ‘dad’ character, Snow, emerged and a story line into which he could be situated. The perceptive reader will notice that the four close friends in the book are called Victor (aka ‘Snow’), John, Collin and Louis, redolent of the author’s dad’s name: Victor John Collin Lewis. ‘Somewhere in the combination of those four characters,’ Lewis writes, ‘I believed qualities akin to those of my young father might exist. Dad served in all the battles described and at the times mentioned, so it seems reasonable to suppose he actually witnessed and participated in those events. Essentially, ‘Wounded’ is the story of an ordinary man whose life was shaped – and very nearly ended – by extraordinary events and, though helpless to control them, who still managed to change the course of history. It was dad who made history; I merely paint a portrait of it.’
Lewis tells us that while ‘Wounded’ is neither anti-war nor pro-war, it is an emphatic reminder of the futility of war. The novel also rejects the tendency of some historical fiction to alter facts for literary effect or to foist contemporary values on past events. Neither does it peddle myths or stoke legends, important as these might be, for dubious patriotic or nationalistic reasons. ‘My book simply pays homage to my father and forms an attempt to connect with an important part of his life about which I knew nothing but which shaped my relationship with him. My hope is that readers, particularly a younger generation for whom the Great War now means little, might come away from the book and reflect upon the long, dark shadow which that human catastrophe still casts upon our ancestral memory.’