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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.
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
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.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand
How much can the human body, the human spirit, endure? Unbroken is the story of Olympic track contender Louie Zamperini as he is tested past the limits of endurance during World War II. His running career is cut short as he becomes a bombardier. The characteristics that made him a difficult child, always testing the limits, become the foundation of an unrelenting resilience in the face of life challenging circumstances. He endured horrors, but he was miraculously saved from death several times. Did God have a plan for Louie’s life? Could he be saved from his own destructive behaviors and the hatred dwelling in his heart?
Unbroken is a biography and so much more. It reads like a fascinating work of fiction. In fact, if more nonfiction maintained the interest level of Unbroken, there would be a lot more readers of nonfiction. This book is engaging and fast paced. Unbroken was thoroughly researched over seven years using archives and many interviews including seventy-five interviews with Louie himself. Very importantly, author Laura Hillenbrand found few discrepancies among the various reports.
I read and review a lot of books. I mentally gauge my review comparing each book within its genre. A five star cozy mystery is not compared to a five star book of poetry, for example. I must state, however, that Unbroken rises above a star rating system. Although emotionally difficult in places, it is a book that everyone should read.
Category: History, Biography
Notes: Thanks to my brother Don Lyons who insisted I borrow his copy of Unbroken. It was every bit as powerful as you said it would be!
Publication: November 16, 2010—Random House
In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.
“The other pilots act as though nothing has happened and speak of sending the other fellow’s clothes home as though it were an everyday occurrence. That’s the way it has to be played because that’s the way it is—it’s an everyday occurrence!”
This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind…Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.