by Amanda West Lewis
Red Deer Press
Every disaster is heart-breaking: for the fears endured, the injuries incurred, the lives lost, the memories wrought. But imagine a disaster that involves the loss of children’s lives and specifically children whose families had chosen to send them away to safety, a safety never realized. The heart-break is beyond imagination.
Such is the premise upon which Ottawa author Amanda West Lewis has based her novel September 17. The story recounts the torpedoing on September 17, 1940 of the S. S. City of Benares, a ship transporting child evacuees from war-torn England to the safety of North America. Sadly that ship never arrives on our shores.
Though September 17 is told in third person narration, it focuses on the experiences of three specific children: Bess Walder, 14; Ken Sparks, 13; and Sonia Bech, 11. Although they will all face the same disaster, their stories are very different.
Bess and Ken are only two of the 90 child evacuees–some frightened, some eager, some with siblings, many alone–aboard the S. S. City of Benares. Bess Walder is eager to go have an adventure in Canada and resume her education–war does tend to send schooling off track– and perhaps even get a university degree so she may pursue teaching after the war. Not surprising she suggests to her parents that she and her younger brother Louis be evacuated courtesy of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), hopeful of staying with their mother’s aunt in Winnipeg.
Ken Sparks of London, also has a sense of adventure, determined to be a war correspondent, and wearing his father’s far-too-large but good overcoat, he sets off, destined for Edmonton.
In addition to the evacuees and their chaperones, there are other guests aboard, including the three Bech children who are travelling with their mother to stay with cousins in Montreal.
While the child evacuees are amazed by the food offered to them and the opportunities for play and activities such as drawing, they never forget the dangers explicit to their travels. Before they leave dock on September 13, the harbour is swept for mines, and there are extensive drills involving kapok vests and lifeboats. The ship itself is part of an 18-ship convoy three miles wide which provides protection but also slows down their progress.
By the time September 17 rolls around, the S. S. City of Benares, believed to be in neutral waters and safe, is without its accompanying destroyer and corvette escorts. And at 10:03 p.m., the first explosion, a torpedo from a German U-boat, hits. By 10:33 p.m., the ship is almost vertical. While some make it into lifeboats–though not necessarily as practised–others end up on wooden rafts and many people, including Bess, find themselves in the water.
The fates of the children, evacuees and not, and all aboard the S. S. City of Benares is revealed by Amanda West Lewis with clarity and feeling, allowing readers to understand the tragedy from multiple perspectives. Since the numbers are staggering –77 of 90 child evacuees died, as did 6 of 10 escorts, 51 of 91 paying passengers and 23 of 49 crew–the sinking of the S. S. City of Benares is an overwhelming tragedy. The few miracles, and there truly are several, will astound readers and provide the sliver of hope that not all was lost.
It is an astonishing story and one that Amanda West Lewis tells extraordinarily well. It is alive and arresting, sharing as many perspectives as possible, while providing deeper looks into the genuine experiences of several children. We learn what they anticipated, what they feared, what they endured, and what happened to them. It is an extraordinary glimpse into a perhaps neglected part of World War II history, and one that needs to be commemorated all the more on September 17 with September 17 the book.
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