Based on a real historic event, the author has embellished the tale, changing some of the locations and adding characters to create a narrative about prisoners of war during WWII, but the tale concentrates largely on the escape the Japanese prisoners planned and carried out in Australia. Using facts about the Japanese code of conduct, their demand for honor, obedience and nationalism, he has caught the atmosphere of those times and those prisoner’s mindsets. The story concentrates on the captives and the captors and their relationships to each other and to their families; it largely concerns the Japanese prisoners but also illuminates the practice of using the Italian prisoners as farm hands instead of placing all of them in prison barracks and compounds. It lightly touches on the way the British prisoners of war were treated by their Japanese captors, but it is obvious that they were not treated as well, nor were the Geneva Convention followed. The Japanese would not accept defeat, did not want to be taken prisoner, and did not believe in giving up. Constantly on their minds was the thought of living to fight another day or dying with honor either at the hands of their enemies or at their own hand.
Around this 1944 event, Keneally has created a fictional narrative, including romantic impulses and infidelities due to the loneliness and distance war creates, and the nature of the characters seems very plausible, under the circumstances. The barbaric behavior of the Japanese is well documented, and the naivete of the Allies in their treatment of the enemy is evident. In the Japanese culture, their honor superseded the value of their lives and they believed that it was their duty to die fighting. It was sheer cowardice to allow the enemy to take them prisoner. Those that were captured, therefore, were recalcitrant, often giving false names so their families would not know they were alive and would mourn them as dead, honoring their memories as brave soldiers who died for their country, rather than as cowards who laid down their arms and were captured..
The arrogance and social distinctions that the British observed was also very well represented. It was that very arrogance that led to many of their mistakes in dealing with the prisoner outbreak. Each culture reacted differently to the loss of their family member and each culture treated prisoners with varying degrees of respect, with the Japanese often abusing their prisoners while the British might have babied them a bit, providing for many creature comforts and distractions, never thinking them capable of the brutality they eventually carried out, not thinking that they might want to even break out when they could stay safe until the war ended and return home to their families if they followed the rules.
The clash of cultures was apparent for the Japanese believed capture was shameful and humiliating; they tried to entice the victors to murder them by running at their weapons or attacking them so that they in turn would be attacked, or else, they even resorted to suicide which to them was an honorable death, more honorable than being a captive, eventually to be returned to society, to a society that had already mourned their loss and would have to revisit that trauma and perhaps shame. While the English and Italian soldiers would most likely be welcomed back home, the Japanese might very well be ostracized for what was considered shameful behavior by a soldier.