Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part and to HarperCollins for my digital review copy via NetGalley. Do check out the post by my tour buddy for today, Jane at Jane Hunt Writer.
About the Book
When war imprisons them, only kindness will free them…
China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.
Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead.
Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.
Format: Hardcover (400 pages) Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 20th August 2020 Genre: Historical fiction
Find The Bird in the Bamboo Cage on Goodreads
The story alternates between two first person narrators – Nancy Plummer and Elspeth Kent – providing the reader with different perspectives on the unfolding events. After all, the thoughts and feelings of a ten-year old girl are likely to be very different to that of an experienced teacher. What unites them is the value of friendship. I liked the way the friendship between Elspeth and fellow teacher, Minnie, grows, allowing them to share the past disappointments and tragedies in their lives. Similarly, Nancy’s friendship with Dorothy (‘Sprout’) and Joan (‘Mouse’) helps to ease the pain of separation from her parents.
When the teachers and children are forced to leave their beloved Chefoo School, Elspeth receives two parting gifts from their Chinese servants that will come to be a source of comfort in the years ahead. The first will help her to distance herself mentally from the traumatic experiences she will witness and endure. (It’s a theme picked up later in the book when a character observes, “Thinking is the real war, isn’t it? It’s our minds that will ultimately determine whether we win or lose; whether we survive.”) The second gift becomes not only a symbol of hope and resilience but a way to honour the memory of those who will not live to see freedom.
The reality of what in loco parentis really entails becomes clear as Elspeth, Minnie and the other teachers find themselves thrust into a role far beyond that of merely educators. As Elspeth muses, “I was here to step into the shoes of all the absent parents. I was here to watch over these temporary orphans of war.” Often, Elspeth underestimates just how important she is to the children’s mental and emotional strength. In a way, the need to look after and protect the children provides a distraction from the challenges each day brings – the unsanitary conditions, shortage of food, risk of disease and cruelty of the guards. As Elspeth remarks, “For the children I kept going.”
Routine and upholding the principles of the Girl Guides – loyalty, courage, hard work, and so on – are the strategies Elspeth and Minnie use to hold things together, distracting the children from the hardships of the internment camp. However, they cannot protect them from everything and none of the children will emerge from the experience unchanged.
As an admirer of John Buchan, I’m sure you can imagine my delight when one of his books turns up in the camp library set up by the redoubtable Mrs Trevellyan. (There’s also a mention of one of Buchan’s favourite books, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which, incidentally, is used to pass clandestine messages in his novel, Mr Standfast.) And I could only nod in agreement at Mrs T’s observation about the value of books: “This is our escape. Right here, in all these glorious words. Between these pages, we can be as free as the birds. We can go anywhere we please!”
The Bird in the Bamboo Cage brings to life the story of the children of Chefoo School in a way that immerses the reader in their experiences. I felt I was living every moment with them. Although there are things that are difficult to read about there are uplifting moments as well, including small acts of defiance and of unexpected kindness. I can only echo the words of the author when she notes in the Afterword, “No matter the time or distance from an historical event, the universal themes of love, grief, friendship, regret and resilience are what connect us all across the decades.”
In three words: Emotional, authentic, inspiring
Try something similar: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
About the Author
Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning New York Times, USA Today, Irish Times, and international bestselling author of historical fiction, including her debut The Girl Who Came Home for which she received the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter was shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Gold Crown Award. She is published in thirteen languages and nineteen countries. Hazel is co-founder of creative writing events, The Inspiration Project, and currently lives in Ireland with
her family, though originally from Yorkshire.