Thursday, January 16, 2014

September 17 by Amanda West Lewis

In the summer of 1940, Great Britain was in the throes of what became known as "the Blitz" or the Battle of Britain- the bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany in an attempt to force the British into either surrendering or as a prelude to invasion under the code name of Operation Sea Lion. The bombing began in July and lasted throughout the remainder of 1940 and into 1941, but most of the severest bombing occurred between July and October of 1940. Both civilians and the military were targeted, with much destruction and loss of life. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) valiantly fought back to protect British airfields, industries and cities. The destruction, fires and general terror that the bombing caused made many British decide to send their children into the countryside away from the bombing, or further north and west, away from German bombers to Scotland and Wales.

Some children however were to be sent overseas to Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) organized the transport of over 200,000 children to these countries as a way to protect them from the bombing and the possible, imminent invasion by Germany. This was to be a temporary relocation as the children were expected to return after the war was over. The children could apply through their schools and they were to travel alone (without parents) but in the company of escorts who were often teachers and young people selected for this dangerous job. The children were placed on boats as part of convoys guarded by navy destroyers from German U-boat (submarine) attacks.But with the escalation of the war against Britain, these attacks turned deadly.

In August 30, 1940, the SS Volendam which was transporting three hundred and twenty children to Halifax, Nova Scotia was torpedoed by a U-boat. All of the children survived but the Volendam had to be evacuated and it was towed to Scotland for repairs. There were 120 CORB children on the Volendam. However, a second CORB transport was torpedoed on September 17, 1940. This ship, SS City of Benares was not so lucky. September 17 tells the story of some of the crew and CORB children and what happened on that fateful voyage.

September 17 has a large cast of characters and tells the story of the sinking of the SS City of Benares from the perspectives of three different characters. It is early September, 1940 and thirteen year old Kenneth John (Ken) Sparks is terrified of taking shelter under the arches of Wembley Park Station. Every air raid, Ken has pleaded with his father to allow him to stay in their flat and every time his father has refused telling him has to shelter there along with his younger sister Mollie and his stepmother. With their situation becoming more dire in terms of being able to feed everyone, Ken's stepmother convinces his father to place him into the CORB program. They arrange for Ken to stay at his stepmother's sister in Edmonton. Ken packs a small suitcase and his stepmother gives him his father's new overcoat to keep him warm.

Fourteen year old Elizabeth (Bess) Walder doesn't want to move to the country in the fall to attend St. Alban's school. She wants to stay at home with her parents and get to know the young fire man, Gareth she recently met. When Gareth enlists, Bess is disappointed but she learns from him that his younger brother is being sent to Canada as part of the CORB program. This leads Bess to try a different tact with her mother and suggest that she and her younger brother Louis go to Canada too. Eventually her parents agree to send them both to an aunt who lives in Winnipeg. Bess and Louis connect with CORB at the train station and board a train to Liverpool. During their journey to the port they meet a young girl, Gussie Grimmond, who is in charge of her four younger siblings. Bess also meets another girl at Fazakerley, Beth Cummings, who will live in Toronto with her aunt and uncle. Beth is just as excited as Bess to be traveling to Canada. They quickly become good friends and nickname each other Princess Elizabeth and Queen Bess.After a brief stay at the Children's Homes in Fazakerley, they board the ship for Canada.

Sonia Bech, her sister Barbara and younger brother, nine year old Derek, live in Aldwick, south of London, near Portsmouth. Sonia's father works in London and returns home only on the weekends. Compared to many British, Sonia and her family are well off. Fearing an invasion by the Germans is imminent, Sonia's father purchases four first class tickets on the SS City of Benares to send his family to safety in Montreal, QC. While Sonia is thrilled to be leaving on such an adventure, Barbara views the trip as an act of cowardice. Nevertheless, they pack their steamer trunks and take the train to Liverpool where they board the City of Benares.

On the City of Benares, all the children settle into the respective quarters. The CORB children are placed in the stern of the ship along with their escorts while the wealthy paying passengers are located up front. The crew of the City of Benares consists of the British officers as well as Indian men called lascars who cook, clean and keep the ship functioning. Captain Nicolls assures Sonia and her mother that they will be quite safe from the German U-boats as they will be escorted by a navy destroyer.

Ken, Bess, Beth and the rest of the CORB children are fed delicious food, have access to a playroom filled with toys and are told that they must carry their lifejackets with them at all times until they are out of the range of the U-boats. During rough weather, many of the children suffer from sea-sickness, but they do manage to spend some time enjoying themselves and making new friends. Then one morning they awaken to find that their navy escort is gone and they are considered to be in safe, neutral waters. But the British couldn't be more wrong. Their exciting adventure is about to turn deadly.

This is a vivid recounting of a terrible disaster which ultimately ended the CORB program of transporting British children out of the country. Only thirteen of the ninety CORB children on the City of Benares survived the sinking. Because the ship sank in approximately thirty minutes, it was very difficult to launch the life boats properly meaning that many of the ships crew and passengers did not end up safely in the boats. Instead, many were dumped into the frigid Atlantic waters and likely died of hypothermia.

Lewis was inspired to write the story of the sinking of the SS City of Benares after seeing an exhibit called "The Children's War" in London, England. The author did considerable research for her novel and she explains in an interview in the back of the book how the survivors of one of the lifeboats coped with the tragedy throughout their lives. Her excellent research is reflected in the novel as Lewis effectively combines historical information with her story. For example, we learn that the British families were truly struggling during the early part of the war to feed their families. The children in the novel complain about being hungry and are completely overwhelmed by the choice of food they are given on board the ship to Canada.

The dialogue between the children and the adults and also between one another is realistic. Lewis also effectively demonstrates that for each child, the journey to Canada was perceived differently and that each had their own emotional response to being sent away. Ken Sparks had mixed feelings, but mostly as a boy on the cusp of manhood, he wanted to grow up and enter the navy. In contrast, little Louis was not so keen to leave home.

September 17 is a well written novel about an event that has mostly been forgotten by history, remembered only by the family of those who lost loved ones and those who survived. But it's good that we remember the unexpected tragedies of war - the sinking of a boat carrying innocent children to a safe life in another country and also the cost of war. The U-boat commander claimed he did not know the convoy was comprised of a ship carrying children. When the Germans saw such a large convoy, they determined that it must be an important one and so made the decision to attack the ships. Even later, he did not apologize for what he had done, although the radio operators on the submarine felt remorse. We must remember and learn if we are to prevent such tragedies in the future. Lewis dedicated her novel to the children who died on September 17. In the front of her novel, Amanda Lewis has a wonderful quote by poet and director, Eve Merriam,
"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, 'Mother, what was war?' "

Book Details:
September 17 by Amanda West Lewis
Markham ON: Red Deer Press 2013
313 pp.

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