When We Were Young & Brave by Hazel Gaynor

When We Were Young & Brave by Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor returns to the blog with a story of occupation and hardship in the early 1940’s with  

When We Were Young & Brave 

Inspired by true world events, this book is narrated with two first person voices: Nancy Plummer at ten years of age and the head teacher of the Chefoo Missionary school, Elspeth Kent.  Providing different experience levels, the perspectives of the narrative voices provide the reader with that necessary tie to facts and more surprisingly, shows that the importance of friendships and support are undiminished with age or experience.  Starting in 1941 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Chefoo School becomes the starting point of the story: most of the students there are from missionary families working in China, and as boarding students, find comfort from the loneliness in one another and the structure provided by the head teacher, Elspeth.  Very much aware of her position of “mother’ and “parent’ to the students in her care, she’s tasked with keeping the children safe and protected, even as they are now forced into situations heretofore unimagined.  

Using the principles of the Girl Guides, Elspeth brings her determination to protect and see the children through the struggles to come, along with the other teachers and two ‘parting gifts’ from the Chinese servants who worked at the school for many years.  “I was here to step into the shoes of all the absent parents. I was here to watch over these temporary orphans of war.” This she accomplished with the core values from the Girl Guides: loyalty, courage, hard work, and so on, Elspeth and Minnie (another teacher) work to hold the children together and protect them, as much as possible, from the hardships and struggles (unsanitary conditions, shortage of food, risk of disease and cruelty of the guards), although none will emerge unscathed.  

Escape from the daily drudgery came in many forms, but the most significant was in the library established in the internment camp – and the parallels of the lives the children were experiencing, as well as a recurring message of survival.  From The Bird in the Bamboo Cage, the story of the children of Chefoo School is brought to life and highlights the importance of books and stories in a way that grabs readers: “This is our escape. Right here, in all these glorious words. Between these pages, we can be as free as the birds. We can go anywhere we please!”  A recurrent theme about fighting not only the physical deprivations, but surviving the mental circles: “Thinking is the real war, isn’t it? It’s our minds that will ultimately determine whether we win or lose; whether we survive.”  With the ongoing friendship of the girls, losses, struggles and the steadfast determination of Elspeth and her other teachers to minimize the ‘horrors’, the story has moments of great hope amidst the struggles, and continues to uphold and exemplify the message that “the universal themes of love, grief, friendship, regret and resilience are what connect us all across the decades.”  Grab a copy and wander through a moment in time that is less familiar to readers of World War II era fiction, you won’t regret it.  

When We Were Young & Brave by Hazel Gaynor

Title: When We Were Young & Brave
Author: Hazel Gaynor
Genre: Dual Narration, Friendship, Historic Elements, Historical Fiction, Multi-Cultural, Political commentary, Refugee Stories, World War II
Published by: William Morrow
ISBN: 006299526X
Published on: 6 October, 2020
Source: Publisher via Avon Addicts, Publisher Via Edelweiss
Pages: 448
Audio Length: 11 Hours: 32 minutes
Rated: four-stars
Get Your Copy: Amazon Barnes&Noble iTunes Kobo Downpour IndieBound Book Depository GoogleAudibleDirect from Publisher
See this Title on Goodreads

Their motto was to be prepared, but nothing could prepare them for war. . .

The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home sets her unforgettable new novel in China during WWII, inspired by true events surrounding the Japanese Army’s internment of teachers and children from a British-run missionary school.

China, December 1941. Having left an unhappy life in England for a teaching post at a missionary school in northern China, Elspeth Kent is now anxious to return home to help the war effort. But as she prepares to leave China, a terrible twist of fate determines a different path for Elspeth, and those in her charge.

Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School, protected by her British status. But when Japan declares war on Britain and America, Japanese forces take control of the school and the security and comforts Nancy and her friends are used to are replaced by privation, uncertainty and fear. Now the enemy, and separated from their parents, the children look to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – to provide a sense of unity and safety.

Faced with the relentless challenges of oppression, the school community must rely on their courage, faith and friendships as they pray for liberation – but worse is to come when they are sent to a distant internment camp where even greater uncertainty and danger await . . .

Inspired by true events, When We Were Young and Brave is an unforgettable novel about impossible choices and unimaginable hardship, and the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher in a remote corner of a terrible war.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via Avon Addicts, Publisher Via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.


About Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor’s 2014 debut novel THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME – A Novel of the Titanic was a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. A MEMORY OF VIOLETS is her second novel.

Hazel writes a popular guest blog ‘Carry on Writing’ for national Irish writing website writing.ie and contributes regular feature articles for the site, interviewing authors such as Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Cheryl Strayed, Rachel Joyce and Jo Baker, among others.

Hazel was the recipient of the 2012 Cecil Day Lewis award for Emerging Writers and was selected by Library Journal as one of Ten Big Breakout Authors for 2015. She appeared as a guest speaker at the Romantic Novelists’ Association and Historical Novel Society annual conferences in 2014.

Originally from Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Ireland with her husband and two children.


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