When We Were Young and Brave by Hazel Gaynor is the kind of book that transports the reader to a a different time and place–a welcome change of scenery for those of us who are staying close to home during this pandemic. In this factual historical novel, the place is Chefoo, Shantung Province, China. and the story revolves around the China Inland Mission School.
After a short prologue, the book opens on December 7, 1941, when everything in Asia changes as the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and begin to take possession of many other places. Soon enough, Japanese soldiers surround the missionary school, remove the various Chinese workers, and aside from a small unreliable hidden radio, news of the outside world is cut off for the entire staff and the children who did not leave the school to be with their families for the Christmas holiday season.
With one hundred twenty-four children in their care, this is the story of a teacher, Elspeth Kent, and one of her students, Nancy. The author’s choice of point of view is nicely done because it gives an inside look at the thinking of both an adult and a student.
Their fear about what is happening to them is mixed appropriately with the stiff upper lip of Miss Kent and the longing Nancy has for her mother–both of her parents are missionaries–the reason that Nancy and her older brother have been sent to the school along with other children of foreign missionaries, diplomats, or business people.
For the group of girls under the watchful eye of Miss Kent, the one thing helping them move through this terrible time is the British Girl Guides program. This program–which came later to America as the Girl Scouts–teaches the girls resilience as they work toward their badges.
And resilience is needed when the Japanese take over the school in 1942, moving the teachers and students to what was once a missionary compound about three miles across town. The place has been abandoned for some time, and the teachers once again pull the children together to clean the place up and continue with their studies and Girl Guides.
What Miss Kent fears most, finally comes true. In 1943, the entire staff and children are moved to an internment camp with fifteen hundred other people at Weilhsien Civilian Assembly Center, hundreds of miles from Chefoo. There, the latrines are filled to overflowing and the food is nothing more than watery stew that looks like dishwater with suspect gritty pieces floating inside.
As the years pass, the children grow into young adulthood and Miss Kent becomes the mother they have nearly forgotten. Until…one day, an American airplane lands in the field next to the camp and they are freed. The story then moves to 1975 and once again, we see Miss Kent and Nancy and their lives thirty years later.
Hazel Gaynor has created a well-written story of how these children survived living under Japanese rule for nearly five years. Gaynor sums it all up when Miss Kent says to another teacher, “I actually think life is meant to have its share of difficulty and struggle. That’s when we find out who we really are, what we’re really made of…We come alive in the dramatic bits, don’t we; in the moments that make us gasp and cry.”