Amanda West Lewis has graciously agreed to answer a number of questions for CanLit for LittleCanadians to share a bit more about her book and to help remember the tragedy of the S. S. City of Benares.
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HK: The disaster that occurred on September 17 was all the more poignant because the victims included child evacuees who were being sent to Canada to keep them safe during war. What did you learn in your research about families who chose to evacuate their children?
AWL: It was a heartbreaking time for families. All parents want their children to be safe and healthy. But with little food, and bombs falling nightly, parents feared for their children’s survival. Many women who could afford to leave the cities went with their children to stay with relatives in the countryside. But people with low incomes had fewer choices. People in safe parts of the country offered to take in children. Over one million kids went to stay in farms in Wales. Then people overseas offered to take children in, and the government created the CORB plan. It was a risk, but people knew that the future lay in the survival of the children.
What a terrible dilemma it must have been: choose to keep your children with you in a war zone, or send them away to be raised by strangers in safety. The parents who chose to send their children away did so because they thought it was best. It was terribly painful, but they thought it was the only way to save their children’s lives. The colonies – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – were far away from the conflict and were seen as perhaps the only opportunity for a good life for the children.
I think about parents in Syria today, and in other war torn countries. If someone said, “We can take your children to safety”, I’m sure they would jump at the chance, even if it meant being separated. Parents want their children to survive, no matter the cost.
HK: While being evacuated was a traumatic experience for some of your characters, say little John Snoad, others seemed to see it as an adventure, Terry even stating, “Who knew that war was going to be such fun?” (pg. 71) What do you think affected how children perceived the process?
AWL: I think a lot of it depended on the age of the child. Adolescents are ready for separation from their parents. We now know that the teenage brain is hard wired for risk taking and adventure, and this was the biggest adventure of their lives. I don’t think it is unusual for teenagers to have seen this as an opportunity. The teens were catapulted into young adulthood, with all of the fun and few of the responsibilities.
For younger children, it was different of course. Some children, like John Snoad, didn’t want any kind of separation from their families. John was clearly a boy who didn’t want to be away for even a night. Others, like Joyce Keeley, were homesick but able to be distracted by caring adults. She and the other 5 year olds weren’t aware of the time scale. A little child doesn’t understand the concept of going away for years. She had no inkling of the monumental change that was happening in her life. It was only later that the younger children began to realize that they weren’t going home.
I think it might have been hardest for the kids who were in the middle, the seven to eleven year olds. As adults, these evacuee children have talked about their sense of responsibility. They believed that they had to be strong for their parents. They felt guilty if they were sad. It was an enormous burden on that generation.
HK: The children in your story encounter a number of crew and others significant to their experiences: Signalman Mayhew, Commodore Mackinnon, Cadets Haffner and Critchley, Rev. King, Miss Annie Ryan the stewardess. Which of these were real people and which were based on real people?
AWL: All of those characters were real people. They all had their part to play in the story. As much as possible, I tried to bring to life elements of their personality that I could glean from my research. Obviously I couldn’t track all of their movements, so what I have done is to construct a fiction based on what we know of their lives.
HK: If anything speaks to the power of story-telling, it is Auntie Mary’s ability to keep the children’s attention by telling them a story in installments as they wait for their lifeboat to be rescued. Did this actually happen and was it the story you tell in September 17?
AWL: Yes it really happened. Everyone remembers Mary Cornish telling the boys Bulldog Drummond stories. I don’t know which ones she might have used as a base, but I read several of them in order to do the research and they all have pretty much the same formula. I imagined that Auntie Mary wouldn’t have known any of the stories very well. After all, she was a single woman, a music teacher, and probably not well versed in books for boys. But everyone knew of the Bulldog Drummond stories, so I allowed myself to weave bits and pieces together, fused with some of my own story telling. I tried to imagine Mary struggling to come up with exciting story lines. I think that as she became increasingly disoriented, her story telling probably became quite surreal.
HK: Much wiritng has been done about disasters and those who’ve survived them and those who did not. Why do you think these stories are so compelling for young readers?
AWL: That’s a really good question. Obviously as I was writing the book I was thinking about how young readers are fascinated by Titanic stories. I think it has to do with an innate desire for risk and adventure. People have a physical response when they read. It’s not dissimilar to actually living through the events, and it turns out that we all like to have our adrenaline stimulated! It makes us feel alive.
I think that young people can read the book and put themselves into the story. They can be excited and scared in the safety of an armchair. And I hope they can be moved by how each character deals with survival and loss.
HK: If there is an image you keep from the diaster as told in September 17 (not a photograph that you saw), what is it?
One image is of Connie Grimmond on the deck with her brothers and sisters. Everyone who survived talked about Connie and how wonderful she was with her siblings. They were a working class family and very, very poor, but Connie was a wonderful “little mother” and made sure that her sisters and brothers were clean and well mannered. I’ve invented a moment for her on the deck holding them, with her arms around them in all of the chaos. I’d like to think she was able to do that in her last moments before getting on the lifeboat. She went down with Lifeboat #8.
Another image is of Joyce Keeley. It is hard not to love Joyce. I have given her a moment with Bess when the torpedo first hits. Later Sonya sees a small child on the deck, holding a large teddy bear. That’s Joyce. I imagined her alone, and bewildered, but with her teddy.
But the lasting image is entirely true and not fictionalized. It’s the image of Ken Sparks waving his shirt so that the pilot could see Lifeboat 12. When I read Ken’s story, I knew that I wanted people to know about him. I think he must have been one of those remarkable thirteen-year-old boys who have an amazing zest for living. I would have loved to have met him.
Sincere gratitude to author Amanda West Lewis for answering my questions
and to publicist Winston Stilwell for arranging this interview and
providing a review copy of September 17.
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* Images retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2112768/Torpedoed-clutched-teddies-The-harrowing-story-Nazis-sunk-ship-carrying-90-children-Blitz-America.html and http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/15/benares-sunk-war-81-children-dead on September 7, 2015.