Jack Peoples was nobody particularly unusual. One day in August 1915 the 18-year-old farmhand from country Victoria walked with his younger brother up a small rise near the family property. Leaving the younger boy at the top of the hill, he walked down the other side and into the nearby town of Mortlake to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He never came back, killed in action in France with no known grave.
The story was a familiar backdrop when a man named Kevin Peoples grew up. Sitting by the fire with his brother and sister, he would ask his father – who had been the boy who watched from the top of that hill as his brother Jack walked away – to “tell us about the day Uncle Jack went to war, Dad”. Aware of the shadow that the memory had cast on his father’s life, and aware of how little he knew beyond that oft-related vignette, Kevin would, after his father’s death, embark on a life-long journey to find the story of his lost uncle.
The result is a little blue self-published book named, appropriately, From the Top of the Hill, which I discovered after Tony Wright wrote about it in the Saturday paper a few months ago. It’s not a long book (I read it in a single afternoon), but it is a deeply heartfelt and honest account.
Peoples breaks the book into three sections. The first is the shortest at just four pages and tells his father’s story, writing about how the “dark, solemn presence of Jack lived on the wall in the corner, directly above my father’s chair.” Oh how I can relate to that concept. The second bit (twelve pages) is what perhaps you’d expect from a self-published book like this: a reasonably straight account of what Peoples knows of Jack’s life. But it’s what comes next, and what makes up the remaining 45-odd pages of the book, that is what sets this little story apart.
Starting with watching his university history lecturer breaking down in tears when trying to describe the horror of what happened at Pozieres, Peoples explains how he came to understand something of what his father felt when thinking of Jack. He visits what’s left of the old homestead to which Jack never returned, describing how “the sad old ghosts of my people have come out to welcome us”. He searches in dusty files at the Central Army Records Office (this was in 1977, pre-National Archives of Australia online catalogues) for something tangible of his uncle’s life. He visits France, twice, and he watches as the Unknown Australian Soldier is entombed at the Australian War Memorial in 1993, feeling somehow that the man in the coffin is Jack even while knowing it’s pretty well impossible. “That’s the wonderful thing about being unknown”, he writes. “…we can all name him and claim him as our own.”
There are occasional little things that betray the book’s self-published origins: one or two typesetting errors, one photograph that’s been printed upside down, and some inconsistent editing: I’m not a fan of the way Peoples mixes the present tense with the past tense. But From the Top of the Hill is for the most part beautifully written, and occasionally reaches the eloquence of poetry. “I see a letter signed by my grandfather, which I push to one side and instead start writing down all the dates and statistics,” Peoples writes of viewing Jack’s files at the Central Army Records Office. “As I write I become conscious of an old brown couch, an open fire, long legs resting on the sides of the fireplace and a hill with a young boy sitting and watching his brother walk away.”
What’s clear is that Peoples realises the importance of place when trying to understand history. The description of his first return to the ruins of the family homestead hints of an even darker history to that place, nearby which 35 or more Aboriginals had been massacred in 1839. His first visit to France, in 1998, left him feeling like there was an “unease insisting this matter of Jack and me was not yet finished.” (Funnily enough, I can relate to that feeling too.) So he returned to France a decade later – and you’re going to have to read the book to find out what happens there.
I found From the Top of the Hill a sad but lovely tale, well-told. I can very much relate to several aspects of Kevin Peoples’ search for ‘Uncle Jack’, to his sense of story and place and to the way an old family story like this one can embed itself in your bones and not let go. Well worth a read.
From the Top of the Hill (ISBN 9780994570307) is available as a print-on-demand title from BookPOD Australia, $19.95
(c) 2017 Adam Purcell