Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Daughters of Mars includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In 1915, two spirited Australian sisters: Naomi and Sally Durance, join the war effort as nurses. Naomi and Sally have never been close–Naomi moved away from home as soon as she could, while Sally stayed behind. But now the sisters are joined by a dark secret–their complicity in their mother’s merciful death, after a long bout with cancer. Although both sisters are used to tending to the sick, nothing can prepare them for what they are about to confront, first near Gallipoli, then on the Western Front in Europe. First their hospital ship, the Archimedes, sinks after a U-boat attack, and the sisters are thrown into the rescue effort with a gifted surgeon, Ian Kiernan. Then, in France, Naomi nurses in a volunteer hospital established by a willful British noblewoman, Lady Tarlton, while Sally edges closer to the front. Sally meets an aspiring artist from their hometown, Charlie Condon, and falls in love; Naomi, meanwhile, decides to marry Lieutenant Kiernan. Both sisters find themselves on the verge of giving up their precious independence, even as the chances of survival grow slimmer in the last days of the war.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In writing The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally drew inspiration from actual wartime diaries, historical hospitals, and real hospital ships. How does the novel reflect the author’s diligent research? Which scenes and characters feel especially life-like?
2. Consider the differences between Naomi and Sally Durance at the beginning of the novel. Why has Naomi left home, and why has Sally stayed? What feelings does each sister seem to have for the other? What causes their relationship to strengthen?
3. Consider the impact of their mother’s death on the Durance sisters. How do they express their grief differently? Were you surprised when Naomi contradicted Sally’s version of their mother’s death at the end of the novel? Why or why not?
4. The Daughters of Mars focuses on Naomi and Sally’s experiences, but it also features colorful secondary characters, including brash benefactors, stern hospital matrons, thoughtful doctors, rude orderlies, and nurses of all dispositions. Who was your favorite character of the novel, excluding Sally and Naomi, and why?
5. Revisit the nurses’ first experience of battle: treating soldiers from Gallipoli on the Archimedes. How do Sally, Naomi, Freud, Honora, and Elsie react to the first rush of patients? Which of the nurses seems energized by their nursing duties, and which are overwhelmed?
6. Consider the traumas of battle that the Durance sisters experience, from hearing the bombings of the Dardanelles at a distance to aerial attacks in the French countryside. Which of these scenes conveys the sights, sounds, and feelings of war most effectively? Explain your answer.
7. Aborad the Archimedes, Ian Kiernan comments on Naomi’s last name, Durance: “I think that’s a pretty fine name, he said. I mean, if you put an ‘en’ in front of it, you have one of the most flattering of words” (88). Consider the signs of endurance in Naomi. What traumas can she endure, and when does her strength falter? Why does Kiernan admire her enduring spirit?
8. Naomi tells Sally, “Our cold hearts are what we inherited. That’s not to blame Mama and Papa” (122). Why do Naomi and Sally believe they have “cold hearts?” When does each sister begin to realize that she has another warmer and more vulnerable side after all?
9. As Naomi takes charge of the rescue raft after the sinking of the Archimedes, Sally observes, “Naomi was in the water but superior to it…. It was a grateful wonder. It was a light shining through ice” (151). Revisit Naomi’s heroism during the disastrous events in the Aegean Sea. Which of her actions, gestures, and attitudes helped the soldiers, doctors, and nurses of the raft survive?
10. Consider the challenges that the nurses face on the island of Lemnos, after the Archimedes sinks. Why does the hospital administration treat the shipwrecked nurses differently? Which nurses suffer the most during their stay on the island? How do Naomi and Sally react to the persecution of their companions?
11. As they are leaving Lemnos, Naomi and Sally take stock of their strengths in the war–Sally notes Naomi’s courage, while Naomi praises Sally’s “calmness and valour” (218-219). What evidence of these characteristics has each sister displayed? What weaknesses go hand-in-hand with their strength?
12. Consider the character of Lady Tarlton, who single-handedly founds the Australian voluntary hospital in Boulogne. In what ways is she a victim of her social station? How do gossip and convention hinder her?
13. Naomi remarks that the war has acted as “a machine to make us true sisters” (331). Consider how Naomi and Sally’s relationship evolves during the long years of the war. When do they seem closest? What keeps them apart? When can they finally be considered “true sisters”?
14. The Daughters of Mars has an unconventional double ending, narrating Charlie Condon’s art opening from two perspectives: with Sally as a survivor of the flu epidemic, then with Naomi. What does this dual ending add to the novel? How do the Durance sisters remain connected, even in death?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Learn about the history of the island of Lemnos, from ancient Greek mythology through World War I: http://www.mylemnos.gr/limnos/eng/Lemnos-History.htm.
2. Plot the wartime travels of the Durance sisters on a world map or atlas. Mark their main sites of nursing–Gallipoli, Lemnos, Rouen, Boulogne, and Denincourt–as well as the cities they explore on leave, including Cairo, Alexandria, Paris, and London.
3. View a collection of Australian propaganda posters from World War I and decide for yourself: would these advertising campaigns have convinced your friends and family to join the war effort? http://www.firstworldwar.com/posters/australia.htm.
4. Browse this collection of medical photographs from World War I, which includes images of Red Cross doctors and nurses, craftsmen making artificial limbs, and a hand-drawn “ladder of good progress” for recovering soldiers: http://www.firstworldwar.com/photos/medical.htm.
5. Pay tribute to the hardworking nurses of The Daughters of Mars by practicing the art of making a splint. Bring strips of cardboard and gauze to your book club meeting, and have a volunteer form a splint on another volunteer’s arm. Directions can be found here: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000040.htm.