On the eve of World War II, Elspeth Kent and young Nancy Plummer meet aboard a ship as they travel to Chefoo School, a missionary school in northern China. Nancy is already homesick for her family, especially her mother, while Elspeth has come to teach and reinvent herself, having lost the man she hoped to marry in a mining accident. A few years later, in 1941, Elspeth is ready to return to England when the Japanese army takes control of the school after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Inspired by true events, When We Were Young & Brave tells the story of what happens to Elspeth, Nancy and the rest of the school’s students and staff for the duration of the war.
The latest novel from bestselling English author Hazel Gaynor (The Girl Who Came Home) is reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s powerful classic Empire of the Sun, based on his own experiences as a boy in China after World War II. When We Were Young & Brave is told in alternating chapters by Elspeth and Nancy, as each tries valiantly to maintain an attitude of stoic optimism. Once the school group is moved to a large internment camp, they suffer malnutrition, disease and more. In the face of all this, Elspeth and the rest of the staff provide heroic solace to their charges, continuing with lessons, activities and Girl Guide meetings, trying to impart as much structure, normalcy and distraction as possible. The narration flows smoothly, full of big and small moments: an adopted kitten, sunflower seeds planted as an act of memory and hope, the worsening illness of Nancy’s best friend and a Chinese newborn who needs care. Years pass until eventual liberation, and Gaynor excels at describing the rhythms of this difficult daily life.
Readers will quickly find themselves immersed in When We Were Young & Brave, which, despite its subject matter, is an uplifting, hopeful tale of camaraderie in the face of hardship and danger.