When We Were Young and Brave
The biggest sin of When We Were Young and Brave is that it’s a perfectly ordinary World War II story. The tale – true though it is – of brave teachers, resilient children, and big bad foreign soldiers has been told so many times that it’s hard to wring anything fresh from the subject, though Gaynor’s talent helps make the ride a smooth one.
Elspeth Kent enjoys teaching at the China Inland Mission School at Cheefo well enough, but knows it’s just one stop in the journeywoman life she’d had planned. Having lost the man she’d planned to marry, Elspeth fled life in England for a more purposeful one overseas. Learning that her brother is now missing in action has led to her preparing to tender her resignation to the powers that be.
Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer – nicknamed Plum – was always a second-class citizen to her parents, forever forgotten and left behind, not even retrieved for the Christmas holiday. A cosseted diplomat’s child like many others at the school, Plum has been taken under Elspeth’s wing, and finds herself comforted by the Girl Guide lessons that Elspeth teaches the girls in her class. Nancy, too, is hoping for a way out, wanting to be anywhere but in China.
Then disaster strikes. It’s 1941, and Japan has declared war on the Allied nations. Cheefo is overrun, the Japanese commandeer the school, the headmaster is disappeared, and the students of the Mission School are forced to continue their lessons under armed surveillance. The group is transferred from place to place, eventually into an internment camp, Weihsein.
Nancy and her friends Dorothy and Joan – nicknamed Sprout and Mouse, respectively – now must deal with entirely unfamiliar deprivations. Using the Girl Guide lessons that Elspeth has taught them (they also have a Brownie troop), they try to stay alive and conserve their meager rations. Elspeth, meanwhile, embarks on an affair with Charlie Harris, the PT master for the boys of the mission school, and must dodge the lecherous attentions of Trouble, who means her…well, see his first name. Much worse awaits them all as the years pass by, before the girls reach adulthood and liberation.
When We Were Young and Brave lilts languidly and with only fitful urgency about its extremely dark and harrowing subject matter. The mundanity of life in a prison camp is interrupted by rapes and beatings – as they are in real life – but characters seem to talk more about their trauma than experience it. It seems to move along in a torpor from one horror to the next, but doesn’t have the verve to really stand out.
Elspeth is the most changed by her internment – falling in love as she does, and – spoiler – experiencing rape as she does. But she comes off as cool and remotely composed no matter what occurs, and the romance between her and Charlie is tepid. Startling scenes of violence, horror and depravation are presented at glancing angles, as if the narrative is afraid to confront them head-on, as if this were a book intended for middle graders.
Were a middle grader to read it, they’d be delighted to meet Nancy, who comes off as a credible ten-year-old. Her Girl Guide meetings provide an original distraction from the horrors of war – but everything from one of her friends dying to a kitten dying to a bird being nursed to health under the enemy’s nose feels like it’s been done before.
The Japanese characters in this book are, tragically and generally, flat – either menacing caricatures or helpless victims of the war. None of them breathe, which is a tragedy in of itself.
When We Were Young and Brave is competent at entertaining its audience, but it doesn’t probe the reader’s soul or mind, making it an average reading experience.