This novel introduced me to a previously unknown story of WWII : the experience of teachers and pupils at a Protestant boarding school in northern China while under Japanese control. The students, children of missionaries, business people or diplomats from around the world, received a traditional British-style education including the classics, religious instruction and preparation for English university study.
After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, school life continued largely as before for a time, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. Overnight, citizens of the US and the British Empire became enemy aliens and everything changed at Chefoo School. They were, suddenly, prisoners of war. They were moved twice; firstly to another location in the town and later to Weihsien Internment Camp, where they were kept captive for two years until liberation by US soldiers in 1945.
The author heard about these events and knew this was a story she wanted to write. The novel’s characters are her own creations but she researched accounts of internment and pored over the archives from Chefoo School, to write an authentic and moving account of people living through great hardship and fearful times with humour, compassion and resilience.
The story centres around a teacher, Elspeth Kent, and three pupils who are young girls at the novel’s opening but teenagers by the time of liberation. Nancy, known as ‘Plum’ to her friends, is the child of missionaries and, even before her capture by the Japanese, had not seen her parents for three years. For someone like me, not familiar with the boarding school system, that seems an incredible time for a child to be without her parents. Nancy and her friends endure an additional four years under the most testing of circumstances.
What holds the children and teachers together are their friendships and the teachers’ steadfast adherence to maintaining a sense of safety and unity, and what we might think of as a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Or, as Miss Kent puts it,
I closed my eyes and absorbed the simple familiarity of the moment: chalk dust on my fingertips, the pool of winter sunlight against my cheek, the sounds of singing and instruction drifting along the corridors. Routine and discipline. The glue holding me together while the world was falling apart.The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p25
Told through alternating viewpoints of Miss Kent and young Nancy, we see the circumstances under which the school community must survive deteriorate rapidly; the brutality of some of the Japanese guards; the tragic experiences of the local Chinese communities.
There are two potent themes throughout: sunflower seeds and the Girl Guides. The seeds are given to Miss Kent by the school’s Chinese gardener just before they are moved from the campus. She plants a seed at various locations throughout the story, one in each place they are interned and in remembrance of specific people.
She resolutely keeps the rituals of the Guides alive for the girls in her charge, as a way of holding onto meaningful traditions for her pupils, and to follow the teachings of the Guides about honourable and right behaviour and deeds, despite the suffering and cruelty around them.
One interesting character who really was at Weihsien Internment Camp is Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic athlete on whom the film Chariots of Fire was based. He was held captive at the camp and sadly died there before the prisoners were liberated. There is a memorial at the location where he was buried.
Both Miss Kent and Nancy come to realise that freedom can be taken away from without but not from within. Nancy’s version of this understanding is this:
For the first time since we’d been under Japanese guard, I understood that freedom wasn’t something I had to wait for, but was something I could choose. In my mind, in my imagination and my memories, I could be as free as the birds that raced the wind, as free as the clouds that chased the sun far above me.The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p277
The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is a beautifully told story of loss and courage, the strength of the human spirit, and the bonds of friendship.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
This is the fifth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
I found Mum’s high school history notebooks, tucked away in a treasure box. On a recent visit, we went through them together. She had written copious notes in beautiful handwriting; no doubt copied from the blackboard or from textbooks, as was customary in the early 1940’s.
The world was at war, Britain fighting to maintain its sovereignty but also its empire. The lessons Mum wrote were all to do with struggles of the past: British royals, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, British dominions in India and Australia. Captain Cook, Arthur Phillip, colonial expansion, ‘troublesome natives’ and ‘lazy convicts.’ ( Mum pulled a face when I read aloud the last two references, rightly shocking today. I was pleased to see her sense of injustice had not been diluted by the years.)
She recognised her old Phillips School Atlas with it’s red cover. Almost half the world was coloured pink back then – pink for the British Empire.
When we discussed her school years, she remembered some things differently. She said she’d had to go to the ‘domestic high school’ because she wasn’t good enough to attend the more academic school. I reminded her that she’d been more than smart enough, but economics and transport problems made attending the more distant school impossible; she’d had to be content with learning domestic science, sewing and cooking at the closer school. She looked both uncertain and pleased by this reminder. Mum was always justifiably proud of her clever mind and aptitude at study and I was saddened to think that this capacity was something she no longer recognised.
The conversation showed that there can be different versions of history, depending on who is doing the telling, when and why. And that memory can be an unreliable narrator at the best of times.
Don’t be fooled by the cover or title of this new novel by English writer Celia Rees. This is no light and fluffy historical romance, but rather a gripping thriller set during Europe in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of a vicious war that had destroyed so much.
The protagonist is Edith Graham, whose rather dreary life as a teacher in war-torn England transforms when she is offered the opportunity to join the British Control Commission in Germany as an education officer, tasked with re-establishing schools within that shattered country.
I’d not thought much about what life was like for Germans immediately following their defeat, apart from images of bombed-out cities and hungry survivors. The picture painted in this novel is of a people struggling to deal with military occupation by the Allied forces, revealing its darker aspects: a flourishing black market, the flaunting of regulations by many of the populace, lingering anti-Semitism not only amongst some Germans but some of the Allied occupiers as well. Most distasteful of all is the manoeuvring for power by the occupiers, once allies, who were now fighting for control of the resources (both physical and intellectual) left by the defeated Nazi regime. There is suspicion, betrayal and double-dealing aplenty, as Edith soon discovers.
We get glimpses of Edith’s life before the war, including her brief affair with a handsome German man, Kurt von Stavenow, later meeting his beautiful, wealthy wife Elisabeth, and her interest in cookery and collecting recipes from different part of the world. Edith not only accepts the challenge of working for the Control Commission, but also takes on a hidden role as a spy, which she comes to via her cousin Leo.
In this, Edith’s role is to gather information and contacts of Germans who have escaped arrest for war crimes. The horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe are revealed as she pursues this work, and she smuggles coded messages back to England within innocent-looking recipes. This is where the ‘Cookbook’ of the title comes in. It’s a clever device and a lovely motif that ties the various parts of Edith’s story together as the novel progresses, also illuminating the culture and experiences of the people she encounters.
She made notes as Hilde described what to do, remembering her home, her family, her mother and grandmother’s kitchen. A whole world came spilling out with the sifting and stirring of each ingredient…Grandmother, bundt tin, everything, gone in the raid on Hanover that had sent Hilde north to find refuge…Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p228
There is plenty more intrigue and drama in the novel, heartbreak and hope, which I think is perhaps the most-needed commodity in a world that has been almost destroyed. Edith is a wonderful heroine, an ‘ordinary’ young woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and who has to make difficult choices because of it. She reflects on what lies ahead for Germany when observing young children in their resource-starved schools, in this way:
How resilient these children were, she thought, how inventive. They had lost everything. Homes. Fathers. Mothers. Their young lives had been shattered like their surroundings by a war that was no fault of theirs but they still managed to conjure a playground out of a bombsite. If this country had a future, it lay with them.Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p363
The novel kept me guessing to the end of the book, and the conclusion made me go back and re-read the prologue so that I could put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s a well plotted and intriguing story.
Readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns, a dash or romance, and plenty to think about, will enjoy
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook.
It will be published by Harper Collins in July 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.
This book’s subtitle is My family, the Holocaust and my search for truth. It is about momentous events in history (WWII, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust) but also about one family, their stories, and memory – the role it plays in defining us as individuals, as families and as a people. On the very first page the author sets the scene:
I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.I want you to know we’re still here p3
The title refers to her stated aim in writing the book: to let her ancestors know that they were not forgotten and that the family lives on. Later, she writes, How I wished they could see all the good that came later: the births, bar mitzvahs, the graduations and weddings, the great- and great-great grandchildren. (p179) A lovely moment comes at the end of the book, when at a gathering of the now large extended family living in America, one of her grandchildren quips Take that, Hitler! (p223)
In the pages of this thought-provoking exploration of what it means to survive, to make decisions about whether to walk away from the past, to learn about it or to silence it, the author traces her own personal experiences. She knew that her parents had memories too terrible to commit to words (p8), she’d seen photos of long-dead relatives who had no direct descendants to tell their stories, and she embarked on the complicated path to tracing her father’s life. This involved meeting and speaking to many people who had knowledge of or a connection with her extended family, her parents, grandparents and others. She travelled to Ukraine to visit the site of the village that had once stood in the countryside and was populated by many Jewish families, but later destroyed after the Jewish residents were murdered. Poignantly she was able to track down and finally meet family and descendants of the man who had hidden her father from the Nazis and thus saved his life.
There is so much to think about in this book. The author’s personal experiences and reflections are moving. They also touch on issues that resonated with me, an Australian reader with no direct connection with the events described. Reading about the theory of ‘postmemory’ first introduced by an American woman called Marianne Hirsch, I was prompted to consider the experiences of indigenous Australians since European invasion and colonisation. For example:
The idea is that traumatic memories live on from one generation to the next, even if the later generation was not there to experience these events directly…the stories one grows up with are transmitted so affectively that they seem to constitute memories in their own right…these inherited memories – traumatic fragments of events – defy narrative reconstruction.I want you to know we’re still here p23
This description is also true of the inter-generational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, from the numerous deaths by disease, the theft of land, the massacres, the policies of forced removal from livelihoods and families, and the incarcerations visited upon indigenous Australians during these years.
(There are many indigenous authors who have published works of fiction and non fiction that explore some of the ways postmemory might well be a concept relevant to the Australian situation, including Melissa Lukashenko, (my review of Too Much Lip here) Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), and Archie Roach (Tell Me Why), among many others.)
There are some terrible events described in this book, including murders of men, women and children, mass graves, the theft of clothing and valuables from those killed, other atrocities committed by the Nazis or those who did their bidding. There are also moments of light, love and honourable behaviour, including this reflection:
From a Jewish perspective, action is what counts. You do the right thing. The feelings come later.I want you to know we’re still here p222
For me, that’s a sentiment impossible to argue against.
I Want You to Know We’re Still Here will be published in Australia by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 20 April 2020.
Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to read and review.
Frankl first published Man’s Search for Meaning in Germany in 1946. It is a book about surviving the horrors of several Nazi concentration camps during WWII – and the book was written and published just one year after the war ended. On reading his account of what he saw and experienced in those camps, and the conclusions he drew about human psychology and behaviour, I was astounded that someone who had experienced what he had, could write with such heart and clarity so soon afterwards.
Before the war Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna. He was sent, along with his wife, to Auschwitz camp, and spent time at Dachau and other camps until liberation at the end of the war. By this time his family, except for a sister, had perished. He used his observations and his own experiences of life inside the camps, to further develop his psychological theory known as Logotherapy. In essence, Frankl came to believe that the sort of person the camps’ prisoners became during their time there, was the result of an inner decision that each prisoner made, as much as the experiences and conditions in the camps. Frankl died in 1997 at the grand age of 92.
The version of his book I read was published by Penguin Random House in 2008, translated by Ilse Lasch, and comprised two parts: firstly an account of his wartime experiences, and secondly a description of his theory of Logotherapy and how the two are related. I will be honest and say that for me, the most gripping part was definitely the first, full as it is of acute observations of human behaviour under the most trying of circumstances imaginable.
He describes the three stages of prisoner response to incarceration: The illusion of reprieve (characterised by shock, or when the individual imagines that what is to come will be short-lived, or not so bad); the phase of apathy (a kind of emotional death but also a very necessary protective shell); and the final stage which comes after freedom is restored, which can include everything from joy to bitterness.
He states that every person’s deepest desire is for meaning and purpose in life. This can come through completing work or deeds, by experiencing and loving others or nature, beauty or culture, or by how we approach and experience the inevitable suffering that occurs in life.
Frankl, commenting on prisoners who showed kindness to others despite their horrific treatment by guards and SS, stated that these individuals proved that:
…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.p 74
Several points made by Frankl in this book resonated for their modern parallels. His comment on the detrimental effects of prisoners’ uncertainty about the likely duration of their incarceration, or the possibility that they would die there, made me think of modern-day asylum seekers in immigration detention centres around the world, including those held in camps run on behalf of the Australian Government. For many of those prisoners, the uncertainty about how long they will remain prisoners is one of the most crippling aspects of their imprisonment.
Like so much that is written about the Holocaust, Frankl’s experiences have been contested, and aspects of his earlier life, his account of his imprisonment, and his psycho-therapeutic theories and methods, have all been questioned. I suppose it is up to each of us to decide what we think about all this. However, I found Man’s Search for Meaning a very thought-provoking and engrossing read, seventy four years after its first publication.
How can someone be raised in a district and know so little about the stories of the people and places in its past?
I was born and raised in the Hawkesbury, arguably one of the most historically rich regions in Australia in terms of European settlement and early contact with our nation’s First Peoples. I learnt the basics in school of course, about Governor Macquarie’s ‘Five Towns’, of which Richmond was one.
Margaret arrived on the Nile in 1801, transported for escaping from gaol, after being imprisoned for stealing a horse (while dressed as a boy). Remarkably, she was one of the relatively rare convicts who could read and write, and exchanged many letters and gifts with her old employer in Sussex – from whom she had stolen the horse! There must have been a warm relationship between these two women, for the ostensibly wronged one to continue to write to an ex-employee who had stolen from her family. Even more remarkably, she kept Margaret’s letters, so historians have had the opportunity to learn about convict life and experiences at this time.
On a recent tour organised by the Hawkesbury Historical Society, I had the opportunity to discover Margaret and walk around the spots where she lived and worked.
You can check out the Historical Society’s website here: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/
Margaret worked for some of the most prominent English settlers around the Hawkesbury, for whom many roads and other features are named: the Dight, Pitt, Faithful, Skinner and Wood families. She delivered babies, cared for small children, cooked, nursed sick family members, and performed many other tasks for her assigned masters and mistresses. She apparently made several trips into Parramatta or Sydney from the Hawkesbury – on foot. No mean feat considering the distance, the dangers and the isolation at that time.
She also helped save several members of the Dight family, helping them to the roof of their cottage on the Richmond lowlands during the devastating flood of 1806.
She eventually received a pardon in 1814. She was 58 years old by then and sadly only lived another five years as a free woman. She is buried in the first cemetery established in Richmond, across from St Peters church. The mystery surrounding her actual burial site is another aspect of her story, one that continues to intrigue today.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Margaret (or someone very much like her) might become a character in my next fiction project, which will be set in the Hawkesbury district.
For me, reading (and now writing) historical fiction is a portal into the past. Good fiction has the ability to bring a time and place alive in a way that reading history texts can’t, with some notable exceptions. I’ve always been a history tragic, though not of the ‘dates, battles and great men’ variety. I’m much more interested in the lives of people: where they lived, what they ate, wore, read; who and why they loved; how they worked, travelled…
I’ve probably learnt more about history through my fiction reading, because I usually find myself looking up certain times and places to see ‘if that really happened then’. Of course that’s so much easier now, with the tools available on the internet.
I love finding out the history of places I go to. Walking down a street named after a figure from the past, or visiting an historical site, is always more interesting to me if I know the background beforehand. I love the fact that we are, all of us, walking over and around our history every day – even if we are not aware of it much of the time.