Fiona Palmer talks to The Writers Shack about her brand new novel, The Sunnyvale Girls, and how she found inspiration from an Italian prisoner of war
I was talking to my friend Lea one day about how I wanted to write my next book on the Italian prisoners of war that worked on farms during WWII. She then went on to tell me about Giulio Mosca, an Italian POW that her father-in-law (Ross) remembered from his childhood. Instantly, I was interested and wanted to learn more. I went out to their farm, Sunnyvale and over a cuppa listened to the family tell me what they knew and remembered of Giulio. They even showed me a wooden snake he’d carved that twisted and moved like a real snake. After all these years, it was still treasured.
Here is Ross and his sister with Giulio and another prisoner who had worked with them briefly. (Giulio is holding Joan’s hands) I was told how they wore maroon uniforms and how Giulio had built their house, making all the bricks himself. He’d had hardly any tools yet when it came time to put the roof on, it was almost perfect. While on the farm, he lived in this little tin hut (below). This photo is of Ross’s father moving it up to the newly built house after he’d left.
It originally stood by the old cottage that Ross and his family lived in. I found it so fascinating, especially to go out into the paddock and see the remains of the cottage. (Which is now just an old stove and pile of old wood). My friends family also showed me the old photos they had of Giulio, in particular this one of him with a gun. Being prisoners they were not allowed to touch firearms, but on some of the farms they weren’t treated as prisoners, even though many in the district were scared of them. Ross has fond memories of Giulio and his father wrote rave reviews in all Giulio’s prisoner records. He was well liked and appreciated.
With all this information, and yet a yearning to learn more, I decided to conduct a record search for Giulio’s prisoner records on the National Archives. Bingo. I found him and got amazing copies of his records. One form even listed Ross’s father and his farm Sunnyvale, along with the dates he was there. Yet I felt this story wasn’t finished with. So when an opportunity to go to Italy came up I jumped at the chance to look for Giulio. We didn’t know if he would still be alive but it was worth finding out.
I made my way to Chiaravalle, his home before the war and managed to find a helpful police officer who spoke enough English to help us. But he did more than point us in the right direction. Knowing we’d come all the way from Australia he contacted Giulio’s family and gave us his granddaughter’s number as she was the only one to speak English. No sooner had be left, he’d caught up with us to point to these two ladies walking down the street waving at us.
It was Giulio’s two daughters, Isalda and Carla. We had a wonderful reunion, a huge language barrier but it didn’t seem to matter. When their daughter could join us, to help translate, we caught up for an amazing lunch. I cannot explain how spine tingling it was to see them produce photos that Giulio had taken home with him. The exact photos Ross had back home. The sisters were so keen to hear all about their dad’s time on the farm as Giulio had never talked about his time during the war. Sadly, we learnt that Giulio passed away over twenty years ago due to blood cancer. They were surprised when we told them about the house he’d built and the snake. Back home he worked around Chiaravelle doing gardening etc. But he was always good with his hands fixing things. Funny enough Chiaravelle, so we were told, roughly means Sunnyvale. And that just goes to prove how surreal and inspiring this trip was. How could I not include all this in my story – The Sunnyvale Girls. Although fiction, there are plenty of ‘real’ parts weaved in.
by Fiona Palmer
Three generations of Stewart women share a deep connection to their family farm, but a secret from the past threatens to tear them apart.
Widowed matriarch Maggie remembers a time when the Italian prisoners of war came to work on their land, changing her heart and her home forever. Single mum Toni has been tied to the place for as long as she can recall, although farming was never her dream. And Flick is as passionate about the farm as a young girl could be, despite the limited opportunities for love.
When a letter from 1946 is unearthed in an old cottage on the property, the Sunnyvale girls find themselves on a journey deep into their own hearts and all the way across the world to Italy. Their quest to solve a mystery leads to incredible discoveries about each other, and about themselves.