Saturday, June 11, 2011
The Report: A Novel
by Jessica Francis Kane, Greywolf Press, August 2010
...a small gem that is both educational and moving
This is a fictionalized telling of a true story – the death of 173 Londoners on March 3, 1943 and its aftermath. In entering the Bethnal Green Tube station to shelter from a German air raid people were trampled when for unknown reasons the crowd pushed forward and crushed and suffocated many of them. The government asks a respected London magistrate, Laurence Dunne to investigate the tragedy and write a report. He does so in three weeks, interviewing over 80 witnesses, local politicians, engineers and others. The story is told primarily through the eyes of 8 year old Tilly, her mother Ada, Warden Low the shelter manager, Reverend Mc Neely the pastor, and several others. As the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy approaches, Paul Barber works with the now retired Dunne to film a documentary of the event. Barber was orphaned as an infant when he was saved but his mother was not.
I read this book straight through and couldn’t put it down or get it out of my head. It was good on so many levels. The writing is clear, concise and wonderfully descriptive – there are no wasted words here – kudos to the author and her editor! An example
…talking to him was like talking to any young person about the war years; they spoke from a background of black-and-white pictures, while your memories were very much in color. They asked about the rationing, while you saw coupons. They spoke about the public morale, when what you remembered were the faces. Try as they might, they only heard a chord or two, while the whole symphony still roared in your head.
The research is impressive. The details of life in war time London enrich the story – there were no weather reports for Londoners throughout the war, sewing circles making topographical maps of German landscapes for the RAF to cite two examples that were new to me. The author gives an authentic feel to the Bethnal Green community and their feelings after this event.
Dunne wants to avoid scapegoating one person or one group so he makes some interesting decisions as he completes his report. The questions that the author raises as Dunne finishes his report are universal and have applicability far beyond this time period. In times of war are decisions that support civilian morale justifiable? Do all tragedies have a responsible party? Is it even possible to determine exact circumstances when witnesses have conflicting views? Do people act differently in a crowd than when alone?
In a story that could easily have been melodramatic and given to sentimentality the author has delivered a small gem that is both educational and moving. A great read!
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia