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Walking in the Footsteps of the Past: The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
Bird in the Bamboo Cage

By Hazel Gaynor

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My ideas come from lots of places, usually from an historic event or person I already know about, but a story about Girl Guide cookies is definitely one of my most unusual sources of inspiration! The story, recorded in an episode of an American podcast in 2015 and which I first heard in 2017, shared the incredible true events surrounding a group of schoolchildren (also Girl Guides) and their teachers from Chefoo School in China, who were sent to a Japanese internment camp during WW2. I was fascinated, not only because WW2 was an event I’d wanted to write about for a while, but because Girl Guides and war didn’t belong together. I wanted to understand how it had happened, how the children and their teachers had coped. What I hadn’t expected to discover during my research was a story not only of unimaginable hardship, but of extraordinary hope, friendship and kindness. That is the story I share in The Bird in the Bamboo Cage.

Before hearing this account in 2017, I knew very little about the war in the Pacific, apart from vague memories of watching the BBC drama Tenko. To understand the events which preceded Japan’s declaration of war on Britain and the USA following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I read about the Sino-Japanese war and about Japanese internment camps across the pacific region. I also read books set in China, and studied maps and old newsreel footage of China in the 1930s and 1940s. To understand the specific experience of those at Chefoo School, I spent time at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, where the Chefoo school and mission archives are kept. I also found an incredibly moving website, created by some of the Chefoo School children, who, as adults, have documented and shared their memories of their years at the school and Weihsien Internment Camp. Stolen Childhoods, a book about the wider experience of children interned by the Japanese army during the war, was also incredibly helpful in understanding the emotional state of children separated from their parents, and of the adults who found themselves acting as their guardians. In researching all my historical novels, I’ve often seen how stories of incredible bravery sit alongside those of pain and loss, and have realised that it is almost impossible to write about one, without the other. The story of war I discovered in researching this particular group of schoolchildren and their teachers was no different.

But there was another, very personal reason, why this event and period of history particularly interested me. Earlier in 2017, my dad had given me a packet of letters written by my great-grandmother between October and December 1942. They were sent to her son, Jack, who went missing in action shortly after heading off to fight for the British Army. Jack was never found and, heartbreakingly, the letters were returned to my great-grandmother. Reading her unimaginable anguish for her missing son made me think about the war in a different way. It made me realise that the agony of separation and grief wasn’t something that had happened to strangers in old photographs, but had happened to my family. Reading the letters inspired me to write a book about the experience of ordinary people caught up in WW2, but I knew I wanted to write a different story of war; one we hadn’t heard before. Discovering the events surrounding the children and teachers of Chefoo School was the ‘aha’ moment, and the spark of inspiration for The Bird In The Bamboo Cage.

That the story involved a group of Girl Guides added another layer of nostalgia for me as Brownies was a huge part of my life as a young girl. I remember putting on my uniform every Thursday, and how eager I was to Lend a Hand, just like my character Nancy and the other girls are encouraged to do in the book, despite the circumstances they find themselves in. The sense of having a shared purpose, the close bonds of the Guide patrol, the application of practical skills learned to earn badges, and being willing to always think of others helped to keep up the morale of the teachers and children during their time in the internment camp, where conditions were unsanitary and food was scarce.

As we commemorate key anniversaries of WW2 – Dunkirk, the liberation of Auschwitz, VE and VJ Day – and learn more about the remarkable girls and boys, women and men who lived through those years, I hope their experience will become more widely known and that their stories will continue to be told. We owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude and it has been a great privilege to walk in their shoes for a while, even if only in my imagination.

(c) Hazel Gaynor

About The Bird in the Bamboo Cage:

War imprisoned them. Friendship set them free.

China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.
Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead.
Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.

‘Beautiful … warm, loveable characters who had me rooting for them all the way’ Tracy Rees
‘An absolute treat’ Liz Nugent

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning, New York Times, USA Today, Irish Times and international bestselling author. Her 2014 debut novel The Girl Who Came Home—A Novel of the Titanic won the 2015 Romantic Novelists’ Association Historical Novel of the Year, A Memory of Violets, was a 2015 WHSmith Fresh Talent pick, The Girl from The Savoy was shortlisted for the 2016 Irish Book Awards, and The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter was shortlisted for the 2019 Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown Award.
Last Christmas in Paris (co-written with Heather Webb) won the 2018 Women’s Fiction Writers Association STAR Award. Their second collaboration, Meet Me In Monaco, was shortlisted for the 2020 Romantic Novelists’ Association Historical Novel of the Year.
Hazel’s new historical novel, THE BIRD IN THE BAMBOO CAGE, set in China during WW2, is out now in Ireland, with publication dates to follow in the UK, Australia and New Zealand in August and September 2020. The book will be published under the title WHEN WE WERE YOUNG & BRAVE in the USA and Canada in October 2020.
Hazel was selected by Library Journal as one of Ten Big Breakout Authors for 2015 and her work has been translated into fourteen languages to date. She is also co-founder of creative writing events The Inspiration Project Originally from Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Ireland with her husband and two children. She is represented by Michelle Brower of Aevitas Creative Management, New York.

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