173 people killed, men, women and children. But no bombs fell and no shots were fired. So why did these people die? The siren had sounded but no raid was forthcoming? And could the truth be told during a war?
This is the story of the tragedy at Bethnal Green underground station. Which stole the lives of 173 people and was the worst civilian incident of World War Two. Jessica Francis Kane has done her research and she has done it thoroughly. I knew very little about this event, although had some sort of recollection in the back of my mind regarding it.
Kane brings it very much into the open and into the light. Drawing on the contrasts that the report did not or could not do for fear of lowering morale, at the time. Laurence Dunne who is real and was the local magistrate was asked to compile the report which he duly did. Interviewing over 80 people, some more than once. The transcripts of these Kane must have studied carefully as they are obviously the basis of the characters who were wall affected by such a tragedy.
As the book opens, we are introduced to all those, who you know are going to be affected. the mother of two young girls on her way to the shelter, to meet with her husband. The shelter Warden, dedicated to his job and the running of the shelter with the other wardens there. A town hall clerk taking his time from leaving the cinema to the shelter when the siren went, aimlessly wandering along. The local Reverend whose church faces the underground shelter begins to test his faith as many subsequently seek shelter with him.
Then the tragedy strikes. Kane handles it with such effect that I felt claustrophobic myself as she describes the emotions felt by all those affected as they struggle for survival. Can they see what is happening? Can they still have hold of their child’s hand? Is the noise telling outsiders what is going on?
Fraught with emotion, we then follow the report that Dunne files to Herbert Morrison MP, the shelters were named after him. Dunne wants to know facts, but he also realises that the people of the area are deeply affected by what has happened and they want to blame some one, any one, no matter how tenuous it may seem. There are many similarities, the unknown woman at the beginning that no one seems to know where she went to. The babies protected by the body of their mothers. The broken lightbulb. The mysterious noise and that no one was on the landing. Dunne has the task of trying to distinguish between truth and rumour.
“We listen better than we observe, obviously,”said McNeely. “Its the only explanation for the persistence of rumour.”
Were people pushed because of their race or religion. There was strong Jewish presence in the area and Kane hints at this, not only did I learn a lot about the tragedy with this book. I also learned a lot about the social history of the area at the time of war. I praise Kane’s attention to detail. The sewing of the RAF quilts to help the pilots understand the landscape of Germany was fascinating. Do any survive to this day?
To make this a more interesting novel, Kane uses the present day in this case 1973 for a young man, Paul to contact a then elderly Laurence Dunne and ask him his reflections on what happened forty years previously. Paul is a making a documentary, and seems to have a link to the past, the past he is determined to bring to life the events of the past and find out why the truth was not told as it should have been. The book goes between 1943 and 1973 and it does take a while to work out whether we are seeing the events unfold or are seeing the reflections of it some 40 years later. It is worth persevering if you are not keen on this kind of storytelling.
Kane for me gives us a book which is rich in history, rich in character and shows emotions which just jump off the page. She also questions how the government control information and produce reports of the time. This is just as a relevant in today’s society. Of inquiries nad reports made – are any now made so quickly and are we only being given a version that they want us to hear. Or have we learnt our lessons and want something far more open and clear.
A book for everyone to read, just to show a different viewpoint of life on the home front. The book resonates in so many ways that I just want to tell everyone they should be reading this, everyone needs to know about it.
Thank you to Amazon Vine for allowing me the opportunity to read this book.
Also thanks to the various book blogs that I follow, in particular Jane, Jackie and Helen who have also read this book and made me even more determined to read it. I knew there was a good reason for starting a book blog!