Book Review for “When we were Young and Brave” by Hazel Gaynor.
Summary: “China, December 1941. Having left an unhappy life in England for a teaching post at a missionary school in northern China, Elspeth Kent is now anxious to return home to help the war effort. But as she prepares to leave China, a terrible twist of fate determines a different path for Elspeth, and those in her charge. Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School, protected by her British status. But when Japan declares war on Britain and America, Japanese forces take control of the school and the security and comforts Nancy and her friends are used to, are replaced by privation, uncertainty and fear. Now the enemy, and separated from their parents, the children look to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – to provide a sense of unity and safety.”
I have read a whole lot of novels about WWII in my day, but this is actually the first one I’ve ever read which is set in Japan occupied China, so this was a real eye opener to me. Obviously, that was one reason why I requested this ARC, but the other one was because, I’d yet to have read a solo work by Gaynor, and only read the books she’s written with Heather Webb. I figured, because I’ve read all of Webb’s solo works, it was about time I give Gaynor the same chance to show me how she writes on her own. Not that I was worried about it, but I do have to say that I was just a bit surprised to see that, due to the style of her writing, that her pairing with Webb was probably destiny; there were definitely some parallels in how they both build their narratives. Obviously, there were also some distinctions but I believe that their two styles do complement each other’s very nicely.
What I liked most about this novel, aside from learning something new about a WWII front that I was unfamiliar with, was the way she did the dual timeline here. first, it was almost totally chronological, which was helpful. Where it wasn’t exactly consecutive, Gaynor used small overlaps so that either Nancy or Elspeth’s narratives slipped back just a few hours or days from the one that had come before. These helped fill in the gaps between the two stories, giving us a very full picture of the events, and Gaynor did a lovely job with giving them both very distinct voices. In addition, the fact that Nancy was a student and Elspeth was one of the teachers allowed Gaynor to look at events from two very different perspectives – that of a responsible adult, and that of a dependent child. Obviously, your own life experiences, or lack thereof, do impact how you approach different situations as well as how you react to them. It is with this that I have my only problems with this book.
Let me explain. While Elspeth’s accounts showed her maturity and instinctual coping mechanisms, along with a huge amount of creativity, I think that Gaynor made her a bit too self-effacing and insecure. Yes, no one in such instances is ever sure if what they’ve done is enough, or if what they’re doing is the best for everyone. However, after being praised by so many of the others for her bravery and ability to think out of the box for the sake of survival, you’d think she’d start to develop just a bit more faith in her own judgement and ability. I also found that Nancy’s voice was just a bit too adult for my taste. She starts out at the age of only ten, but she sounds older than that. Again, I get that some children can be particularly precocious, but as talented as Nancy is portrayed, I felt that she sounded (at least at the onset of the book) too mature for her age, especially given the essentially privileged life she had led until then. This, combined with the increasing hardships Nancy was experiencing made me feel there was a bit of disconnect between her intelligence and her emotional side for her sections of the narrative.
However, these were the only problems I had with this book, and in general, I found this story to be fascinating. I also enjoyed the little romances that came to both Nancy and Elspeth as the story progressed, and found them to be not at all annoying – mostly because their survival was far more at the essence of this story than their falling in love. I’m truly pleased that I got to read this novel, and it looks like I’m going to have to do some Gaynor back-list reading, because I did like her style and character development. (By the way, I should mention that the title of this review is actually the title for the UK audience, which I personally like much better than the US one.) I am warmly going to recommend this novel and award it a very good rating of four and a half stars out of five.
William Morris – Harper Collins released “When we were Young and Brave” by Hazel Gaynor in the US on October 6, 2020 and in the UK as “The Bird in the Bamboo Cage” on August 20, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (US iBook, UK iBook, or audiobook), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.