When We Were Young & Brave (US/CAN) / The Bird in the Bamboo Cage (UK)

Written by Hazel Gaynor
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

This absorbing book about courage and fortitude transports the reader inside a Japanese internment camp during the World War II years.

Elspeth is a teacher who, to escape her life in England, traveled to China to teach at Chefoo, a British-run international Christian school for children of foreign dignitaries and businesspeople. Everyone is happy and life is relatively good, though Elspeth is considering resigning and heading back to England. However, before she gets a chance, Britain declares war on Japan. Soon, the Japanese army arrives and forces everyone out of the school and into an internment camp, strictly overseen by the Japanese military. Making the best of poor circumstances, the teachers strive to make sure the children continue their education while trying to keep villains at bay. The danger increases when they are sent to yet another camp with worse conditions.

The book’s two perspectives are that of Elspeth and one of her students, Nancy, a young British girl whose brother is in the camp with her. Nancy hasn’t seen her parents in a long time and leans on Elspeth as a mother figure. Despite an awful event that happens to Elspeth, she manages to keep up outward appearances as well as her job duties by straddling hope and acceptance of her plight.

The author’s in-depth research into this era is apparent, with rich, evocative details of life inside the camp. It can also be viewed as a tribute to teachers who served as surrogate parents for those children separated from their parents in wartime. Eye-opening and educational, the book’s message is that ordinary people can be heroes, and that resilience, bravery and faith in a better tomorrow may be all we need to get through the darkest of days.