H.F. Thompson, management consultant, reader
Margaret Blair wrote this moving chronicle for her family ‘past, present and future’. But while her story of growing up in Shanghai in the 1930s unfolds in the intimate world created by her parents, her brother Gordon and her Amah, it is also rooted within the broader family of the International Community. – it is within this wider orbit that the family’s social life revolves in better times, and it is with them that Margaret’s family endures the years of internment in Japanese camps. So the experiences she relays, while a deeply personal narrative of her childhood years from the later 1930s to the end of World War II, are, in part, also the experiences of a broader community.
The central drama of the book unfolds in a series of ever-grimmer camps situated only miles away from the comfortable domesticity of early childhood spent on Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai. Although the book is organized chronologically, during the internment years as Margaret grows hungrier and weaker, there are flashbacks to the earlier times of comfort, security and plenty.
The book is written from the perspective of Margaret as a young child – the impressions, observations, emotions, and concerns are those of a child. However, the author provides enough historical detail – but not too much – to give context and greater meaning to the young girl’s perceptions. Margaret brings her world to life by sharing details that help us imagine what it was like before the war: the vivid descriptions of street life in Shanghai; the fabric of social life and school days, the affections of her Amah, meals prepared by the Chinese cook. And later, as her story unfolds, we learn the grimmer details of internment life – the ever-diminishing daily food allotment that slowly but surely brings them all to near-starvation; clothes gradually disintegrating into rags; the anguish each Christmas as the family contemplates the father’s heavily censored letter.
Personal losses cast many shadows in Margaret’s story: the separation from her beloved Amah whom she refers to as her ‘Chinese mother’; the years-long separation from her father during the internment; the loss of beloved family pets, and finally, the loss of her beloved City and homeland.
Despite the intimate sorrows and large-scale tragedies, Margaret’s story is one that is relieved by the myriad acts of love and kindness that people show one another. There is also the relief provided by the children’s perspective itself – the father’s political dismissal from his administrative post, for example, means that he is around to prepare delectable meals and lavish much attention on them; moving to the internment camp translates into a steady supply of playmates close by and greater freedom to roam without constant adult supervision. Despite the hardships of internment, adults also manage to preserve many of the structures of childhood – schooling continues, adults took care of the young, gifts and treats were miraculously produced for birthdays.
This book is very hard to put down. It is nicely structured in three parts – Prelude, Captivity, and Release – representing life before, during and after internment. The story moves briskly, the dramatic tension never really lets up, and you can’t wait to see what happens next. Margaret provides a very satisfying conclusion to the book, giving us an update on what happened to the central characters. She also carefully references external sources. Thus, this book will appeal to readers with an interest in the historical setting of Japanese-invaded China, in social history as well as anyone who remembers what it is like to think and feel like a child.