What an engrossing story this is if you’re looking for a world to lose yourself in, a world more horrific and frightening than we can ever imagine. A war story that is at times both traumatic and heart-warming, The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor tells the story of a teacher and pupil interned in China during World War Two, a story often forgotten and seldom told.
Based on the true story of a real school – the China Inland Mission’s Chefoo School in Yantai, Shandong province in northern China – as the Japanese army invades and school life is changed overnight. Gaynor tells her fictionalised story through the viewpoints of teacher Elspeth Kent and pupil Nancy ‘Plum’ Plummer. Elspeth is struggling to write a letter of resignation, intending to return home and join the war effort, when war arrives at the school gates. At first Chefoo School proudly continues to operate under armed guard but after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and the entry of America into the war, the school is moved to Temple Hill internment camp and later to Weihsien. At each step, privations, hardships, hunger, threat and sexual exploitation threaten teachers, pupils and the wider camp community.
Elspeth and Plum offer different perspectives on what is happening and we see the growing friendship and respect between the two women, because Plum starts off a child and grows as a woman unable to remember her mother, unsure if she will ever see her parents again. The teachers truly are ‘in loco parentis’ when the school is relocated and the children learn to support each other, to endure hardship by recognising there is always someone worse off than you and that everyone is a person in their own right [pupils, teachers, guards, fellow internees, night soil women] with their own hopes, dreams and fears. They face hunger, theft and personal attack. Gaynor portrays the school’s protestant ethic with a light hand, instead making Elspeth Brown Owl of Chefoo’s Guides and using the Girl Guide Handbook’s mottos as a thematic skeleton. For each new challenge they meet there is a guiding motto to help them face what must be done.
I am not a lover of all ends being neatly tied and certainly this book is not perfect – chunks of time pass in brief summary paragraphs and at times the action seems delayed with detail of the school day – but Gaynor has created a world of prisoners and enemy that made me want to read on. Of course, we know how the war ended but we so want to know what happens to each pupil and teacher.
Essentially this is a novel about the strength and value of friendship and loyalty, the love that binds people together and enables them to survive horrific situations.
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THE BIRD IN THE BAMBOO CAGE by @HazelGaynor #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4ZN via @SandraDanby