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When We Were Young and Brave–kindness in the midst of despair

When We Were Young and Brave

by Hazel Gaynor

During our current tumultuous times, When We Were Young and Brave was somewhat of a difficult read for me, but I’m glad it is now a part of my personal reading journey. Hazel Gaynor’s latest book relates a fictional version of the events following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor as they play out for the students and teachers at the China Inland Mission School in Chefoo, China. With Japan’s invasion of China, the Japanese seize and occupy the school, later interning the residents in the much larger prison camp known as the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center where sanitation facilities are disgusting and meals are meager, nutritionally inadequate for growing children, and almost inedible. Despite the harsh conditions, the teachers protect the children as best they can while rallying them with insistence on routines, cleanliness, and a hearty “chin up” attitude. Of particular note is the role of their Girl Guide troop and standards that help the students in maintaining a positive outlook.

The last sections of the book, “Liberation” and “Remembrance,” are remarkable in the beauty of the skillful writing that describes the impact of the American liberation on the camp residents. They gain relief from the fears that haunted them daily, but endure the substitution of new anxieties and questions for the future. Where will they go and what will they do? Is anyone waiting for them at home?

The story is told by alternating narrators. Elspeth is a competent, well-organized, and kind teacher who has a special motherly feeling for Nancy, the daughter of missionaries in China. Their relationship is always teacher and student, but as months of internment become years, Elspeth takes on increasingly more of the commitment for safe care that she made to Nancy’s mother as they departed by boat to sail to the school, both as first-timers. We view their ordeals from both Elspeth’s and Nancy’s points of view.

There are a lot of themes in the book including resilience, relationships, releasing the past, and looking to the future. Symbolism is also important in the kingfisher that becomes the emblem of the new Girl Guide patrol and the sunflower which holds a special meaning for teacher and students. 

The characters emerge as three dimensional figures as they are well developed. Realism comes into play with descriptions of the harsh conditions; no one’s story is fairytale like or even positive. The setting is well-executed with vivid word pictures. As the Chinese workers slosh through the camp, the odor of the filth of “honey-pot” buckets they pull from the latrines makes an unforgettable olfactory experience. There are also more pleasant descriptions of the beauty outside the camp, but glimpses are rare for those interned. The last two sections make the book a winner for me, but the first sections are also well written and essential to the success of this historical novel.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Historical Fiction

Notes: There is a very informative section at the end of the book that describes the author’s research and thought processes and some historical background. The author has also included a brief history of the Girl Guides as that organization plays an important role in the girls’ lives. Other additions are a list of books and websites for further reading, including original source documents found at weihsien-paintings.org, and some questions for discussion.

Publication: October 6, 2020—Harper Collins

Memorable Lines:

When she was cross, Miss Kent spoke in a way that reminded me of brittle twigs snapping underfoot on autumn walks. I felt my cheeks go red. Without giving me a ticking-off, she’d done exactly that.

I knew the smile she gave us that morning was the sort of “we must be brave” smile adults use when they’re trying to pretend something awful isn’t happening.

But, as I’d come to realize about life during a war, nothing stayed the same for long. Just when you thought you’d adjusted and adapted and found a way to cope, the situation changed.

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