Updated: Sep 21, 2021
By Hazel Gaynor
An evocative historical fiction novel of courage, resourcefulness and friendships during the most traumatic of times.
Elsbeth Kent is a teacher at the Chefoo School, a missionary school in northern China and but is anxious to return home to England. But as she prepares to turn in her resignation, a terrible twist of fate determines a different path for Elspeth, and those children in her charge.
Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer, is a British student at Chefoo School, when Japan declares war on Britain and America and takes control of the school. Separated from their parents, Nancy and her friends look to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – to provide a sense of unity and safety.
The school community must rely on their courage, resourcefulness, and friendships to survive the inconceivable hardships. When they are sent to Weihsien, a distant internment camp even greater danger and uncertainty await them.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND BRAVE is a dramatic and touching chronicle of the fortitude and resilience of women and girls. The interesting story is inspired by true events and is essential reading for fans of historical fiction.
Author Hazel Gaynor skillfully transports us to China in December 1941 with her descriptive and evocative writing. The story alternates between Elsbeth and Nancy. I particularly liked the strength of Elsbeth’s character as she attempted to educate and care for the children during a most traumatic and gut-wrenching time.
My favorite part was Gaynor’s use of the Girl Guides program as a significant reason for Elsbeth and Nancy’s inspiration for survival. By following the three tenants (faith, loyalty and service) of the program, Nancy also know as Plum, and her best friends Mouse and Sprout showed their bravery and pluck. Gaynor’s epigraph for her books sums it up perfectly.
“Girls! Imagine that a battle has taken place in and around your town or village… What are you going to do? Are you going to sit down, and ring your hands and cry, or are you going to be plucky, and go out and do something to help.”
Agnes Baden Powell, Cofounder of the Girl Guides
I also appreciated the symbolism of the sunflowers seeds that Elsbeth received from Wei Huan, the Chinese school gardener, and how the seeds were used throughout the book to mark significant events.
Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning New York Times, USA Today and international bestselling author. She is co-founder of creative writing events The Inspiration Project, and lives in Ireland with her husband and two children. Previous books have included The Girls Who Came Home (2014), The Lighthouse Keeper Daughter (2018) and Meet Me in Monaco (2019).
Thanks to Netgalley for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Published October 6, 2020