Books

The Telegram

Fourteen-year-old Beatrice Thomas lives with her widowed mother and younger sister, Tilly, in a small New Zealand town overshadowed by the events of WWI. Many of the local boys, including Beaty's friend Caleb, are away fighting.

When Beaty has to leave school, she gets a job as a telegram girl at the Post and Telegraph Office. The work is tough – she often brings news of sons killed or wounded. She must convince the telegram boys, and herself, that she's up to the task, at a time when women's roles are limited.

Meanwhile, Caleb's letters turn darker as his initial enthusiasm fades and reality takes over.

The war finally ends, but Beaty continues delivering telegrams through the Armistice, the peace celebrations and the dreadful influenza epidemic. Soon she's running the Post Office almost single-handed.

Then Caleb's letters stop arriving.


Excerpt

"Well, my dear, it's been lovely to see you. Such a treat for me. I do hope I haven't held you up too much. Tell Mr Kendall it was all my fault, if he makes a fuss. And now I'd better take that envelope, hadn't I? There's always a chance," she said brightly, "that it's something else, or that he might have been wounded or even taken prisoner. They have very good hospitals over there."

She went over to the bench, pulled open a drawer and drew out a neat little paper knife, then sat down again. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. The envelope made a crisp tearing noise as she slit it open, drew out the telegram and unfolded it.

She sat there, upright, not moving. Silence rang loudly between us.

"I'm sorry," was all I could manage.

Remembrance art installation in Wellington, November 2015
One of my great-great aunt Louie’s photographs from Egypt; this one shows the San Stefano hotel in Alexandria which had been turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers.

Karori services cemetery in Wellington. Several of the gravestones here are for men who died towards the end of the war, including some who died on Armistice Day itself, 11 November 1918. The armistice beacon at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington, set up for the centenary of the Armistice, 11 November 2018.

The story behind the book

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to go to Gallipoli for the Anzac Day ceremony. I went with a group called Gallipoli Volunteers, and we helped out at the dawn service and the later services at Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair. The volunteers were a great group and it was a lot of fun as well as being a very moving experience. At Anzac Cove, the ceremony is broadcast on big screens so everyone can see clearly, but all through the night before, as people were arriving and settling in, there were films and videos playing on the screens as well. We didn’t get a chance to watch them all but one I saw made a big impression on me. It was a short film called The Telegram Man, about the impact of World War Two on an Australian farming community. You can read more about it. When I got back home, I started reading about telegrams and found out that in World War One, they had been delivered by boys and later girls. That seemed like the great beginning for a story to me.

The other trigger behind the book was when my aunt lent me the photograph albums that once belonged to my Great-great-aunt Louie (Louisa Bird), who was a nurse in World War One. There are photographs of hospitals in Egypt and my adventurous great-great aunt riding a camel by the Pyramids, but there are also a lot of photographs taken at the War Veterans Home in Parnell, Auckland, where she was Matron after the war. These men had returned home safely, so they were lucky in one way, but they were badly wounded and life would never be the same for them again. It made me think about what life was like for those soldiers who were wounded in war and had to adjust to a life back home that was different from the one they had before.

Reader's Activity

• Have you ever seen a telegram? Ask older members of your family if they can remember sending or receiving one for weddings or other special occasions.

• Telegrams were sent using morse code. Look up the morse code alphabet online and practise sending your name in morse code, or try to send a message in morse to someone else.

• One of the things I enjoyed about writing this book was making up the street names. A lot of them are names of actual streets that I know. Find out about the meanings behind some of the streets near where you live.

Reviews

"During WW1 the last thing the people at home wanted to see was a telegram boy or girl coming to their door. If you had a son, a brother a father or a husband at war then a telegram meant missing in action, dead in battle or taken prisoner ... Beaty is a treasure and good role model. Philippa Werry describes life at home with knowledge and accuracy in this very readable novel for primary, secondary and high school students" ... read more
Bobs Books Blog by Bob Docherty

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