Using Fiction for Teaching History (Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Hi every one,

As a book lover and avid reader, I am always looking for ways to incorporate reading and fiction into my teaching. Although fiction is limited in its portrayal of the facts and has limitations as a secondary source, it can be used in similar ways to movies to encourage a sense of empathy amongst the students.

A current Australian novel which is perfect for giving students an idea of the conditions of POWs during World War II is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

If you haven’t already read it, I recommend you do so, STAT! It is an amazingly brilliant story depicting the conditions of Australian POWs during World War II, incorporating the perspectives of both the Australians (commanding officers and soldiers) and the Japanese. It provides material for great discussions in class about many issues such as:

  • Usefulness and reliability of sources – how reliable is fiction in the study of the POW camps in history?
  • The perspective of Japanese – what drove the Japanese officers to commit the acts they did? Discussions of the Japanese culture, the demands of the Emperor to build the railway with limited resources, the Japanese military tactics, etc. Students could write from the Japanese perspective using the novel as a starting point.
  • How closely do they believe the ANZAC legend relays the truth of the Australian men? Students could discuss some of the behaviours of the Australians and how this does or does not fit into the Australian ANZAC legend.
  • Assessing the impact and effects of war on the returning POWs.
  • Conditions of the POW camps.

There is absolutely no need to have your students read the entire novel (although you should), rather key areas of the novel could be used to study various subject matter. For example:

“This must stop, Dorrigo Evans was saying. It’s wrong. He’s sick. He’s a very sick man.

It wasn’t even an argument, though, and Namamura just raised a hand and talked over him in a new, kindly voice.Major Nakamura say he have some extra quinine, Fukuhara said. To help sick men work. The Emperor’s will decrees it, the railway needs it.

And the drumming went on, louder and louder. 

Dorrigo Evans understood that Nakamura was trying to help, but that he could do nothing about the beating he had ordered. Quinine would help others. Nakamura could help whom he could help, and quinine would help him help them. But he could not stop the drumming. He could not help Darky Gardiner. The railway demanded it…..” The Narrow Road to the Deep North, p 306

How might you use this quote from the book to teach student’s about the POW camps? In this quote alone we see a sick and dying man being beaten by the Japanese, we get an idea about the perspective of the Japanese soldiers, the fact that the Australian commander, although seemingly respected by the Japanese, has no power over the treatment of the men.

Do you use fiction in your classroom? 


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