Research Reading – the work of Michael McKernan

When I began writing my novel in earnest at the beginning of the year, I had planned some of my research as leisurely visits to quiet reading rooms at libraries and public institutions. In preparation for my visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, a two hours drive from home, I phoned ahead to organise the availability of relevant books and materials. When I asked about information on the homefront of World War II, the immediate reply was ‘oh, you’ll be wanting to read Michael McKernan’s book All In! Fighting the War at Home.’ Wow, I thought, this librarian knows his stuff.

I would soon come to appreciate this historian’s work.

Fast forward to mid July. I was nearing the end of my second draft and I needed to check a few details in my notes. My local library had re-opened for limited access, and searching the online catalogue I found another text written by Michael McKernan: The Strength of a Nation – six years of Australians fighting for the nation and defending the homefront in WWII. Why not? It might have some supplementary information to the earlier book I’d read.

There was some trepidation, however. I was writing about women at home at the start of the war, and though at least one male character was desperate to sign up, I really didn’t want to write about the actual war. The soldiers and fighting side of war.

The Prologue and first five chapters

  1. Legacy
  2. Australia is also at war
  3. The air war
  4. At home
  5. Actions stations

became liberally dotted with post-it notes, and I found myself eager to read more. I settled in to enjoy Michael’s clear style with a range of viewpoints from enlisting soldiers at the time. Within this well-researched book, his choice of personal stories, details and anecdotes bring important and emotional moments to life. Consider this gem from page 97:

After Bardia the Australians had been searching desperately for water. One fortunate man in Ralph Honner’s C company came across a 50-gallon keg of wine. Well it was liquid; it would just have to do.

And this, discussing Ben Chifley, from page 137-8:

And there was much to like in a future prime minister whose personal telephone number at Parliament House in Canberra was one off the local butcher’s. Those who misdialled may not have recognised his voice, but he would dutifully take down the meat order and pass it on to the bemused butcher.


I found myself, at times, moved to tears by the revelations Michael collected from people he met during his time as Deputy Director of of the Australian War memorial and years of leading tours to First and Second World War battlefields. He introduces a range of people in the early chapters, and the Epilogue returns to outline where these people were at by the end of the war.

At times provocative through the use of rhetorical questions concerning the leadership of the armed forces, and the politics of the time, I found this to be a deeply engaging history. How I would have loved to use some of these details when I was teaching junior History earlier in my career. Michael’s ability to create images of the most horrendous situations with empathy and pathos would have been much more useful than the brief chapters in the ‘Retroactive’ textbooks at my disposal.


Find out more about Micheal McKernan at Celebrity Speakers.

2 responses to “Research Reading – the work of Michael McKernan

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