As I told you I’ve accumulated a lot of reviews that I haven’t had a chance to share yet. Today, I bring you a book I read recently (I’m afraid there won’t be a lot of order on how I share the reviews either). A fellow blogger (Hilary Custance Green) contacted me to ask me if I would be interested in reviewing a non-fiction book. As you know, I read and review mostly fiction books, but I’ve read many non-fiction books in my life, for my studies or personal interest, and when she explained her project, I couldn’t resist. Through her book, I got in contact with a very interesting publishing company from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, a stone throw away from where I live and with a great and varied catalogue. They kindly sent me a hardback copy of the book and I read it on my recent trip to Paris. Although I don’t mention it on the review, the book (that’s also available in digital copy) is filled with maps, photos of the letters, and pictures of the people it talks about, so a paper copy is a good investment.
And no more blah, blah, blah…
Surviving the Death Railway: A Pow’s Memoir and Letters from Home by Hilary Custance Green
The ordeals of the POWs put to slave labour by their Japanese masters on the ‘Burma Railway’ have been well documented yet never cease to shock. It is impossible not to be horrified and moved by their stoic courage in the face of inhuman brutality, appalling hardship and ever-present death. While Barry Custance Baker was enduring his 1000 days of captivity, his young wife Phyllis was attempting to correspond with him and the families of Barry’s unit. Fortunately, these moving letters have been preserved and appear, edited by their daughter Hilary, in this book along with Barry’s graphic memoir written after the War. Surviving the Death Railway’s combination of first-hand account, correspondence and comment provide a unique insight into the long nightmare experienced by those in the Far East and at home. The result is a powerful and inspiring account of one of the most shameful chapters in the history of mankind which makes for compelling reading.
This is the link to the hardback copy in Amazon.co.uk:
This to the digital one:
Here in Amazon.com:
In my review, I share the publisher’s site, where you can also get a copy:
Thanks to Hilary Custance Green (who edited part of her family history and that of many others) and to Katie Eaton from Pen & Sword Books Limited (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely choose to review.
As a reader, when it comes to stories about the war, I’ve always been more interested in the individuals (both in the front and back home) than in the way the battles were fought. I had heard, read, and mostly watched TV programmes and movies about Japanese war camps (I won’t forget Tenko in a hurry). Probably lots of people have. This book provides the personal experience of a family whose lives were affected and transformed by the war. We get to know Barton (Barry) Custance Baker, born in Malaya, before the war; we later learn of his marriage to Phyllis and then we follow him all the way back to Malaya and read on as he becomes father and prisoner of war. We also read (thanks to the correspondence of the period, some that reached its destination and some that didn’t) about Phyllis’s life, the thoughts of those left back home and the way they tried to hang on to hope.
The book combines letters from Barry to Phyllis about his life in the East, most of the time not sure if any of them would make it to his wife, letters from Phyllis to Barry, trying to keep up his spirits with news about their son, Robin, and his family, and the diary Barry wrote, containing more details about his time abroad, although always trying to emphasise the positive and understate the difficulties. The combination of these narratives creates a complex and complementary testimony of the varied experiences of the war for those on both sides of the conflict, such as the difficulty of being away and separated from those you love for years, missing the early years of a son you hardly know and worrying that you might no longer know your partner when you go back (or when they come back), and contrasting the often mistaken ideas and thoughts about what the other party might be enduring.
Barry’s parents thought he would be bored as a PoW, never imagining he would be building a railway line, the Thailand-Burma railway, appropriately called Death Railway, as it cost so many lives (not only British). That he, as an officer, might be engaged in heavy labouring work, starved and ill did not enter their imagination.
Barry also had little concept of life back home and did not have news of his parents’ move to San Francisco to help with radio transmissions in Malayan or later, of the death of his younger brother, John. He imagines there might be some restrictions and even danger, but not how unsettling the lack of news was.
Barry’s efforts trying to ensure he kept track of his men and that he did all he could to keep them safe were echoed by those made by Phyllis, who tried her hardest to create a network of information to share any news between the relatives and friends of the men in her husband’s unit, sending encouraging letters, and even creating a dossier with as much data as possible about all the men, to facilitate the task of the War Office in identifying and reporting their fate.
The book is extraordinary too because it clearly shows the tireless efforts they all made to try and keep in touch at a time when communication with each other wasn’t only a click away, and when sometimes years might pass without any news of the other person (and in the best case scenario the news might be years old by the time they get it). Forget about 140 characters on Twitter. The rules of their communication kept changing and at some point they could only send 25 words to their loved one, and that included the date. And the best they could hope for was a prewritten card with only a few words added by hand.
If physically the experiences are very different (although not full of gross details, we get a clear sense of the trials and suffering the men had to endure), mentally, the toll of the lack of information, of the separation and the impotence is clear on both sides. And those letters of mothers, girlfriends, uncles, asking for information about their loved ones, sharing the good and bad news, but always trying to encourage the other person, no matter what their lot has been, are impossible to forget. Even the replies to Phyllis request for particulars about the men convey so much more than what is written. It is amazing how a few words to describe somebody can be so full of feeling and be so touching, and how much they say about unspoken emotions.
As readers, we can but share in the feelings, and are touched by the hopes, anxieties, and stress of the situation. We are given an extraordinary insight into the lives of people whom we might have known, and who could have been our neighbours, friends, or family. We read about their joy at the impending reunion and their wish to get to know each other (and the worry that they might no longer recognise or like the persons they have become). Barry and Phyllis become our ersatz family and we’re happy to learn they had more children and lived happy and fulfilling lives. I was particularly moved by a moment towards the end of Barry’s life when he’s ill in hospital and for a moment believes he’s back at the camp. When his daughter (Hilary) explains to him what has happened since and he realises he’s ill and dying but has lived a full life he says ‘I’ll settle for that’. I hope we all can say that when our time comes.
Hilary Custance Green, the editor of the book, and Barry and Phyllis’s daughter has found the way of letting the letters and the diary tell the story, with very little explanation or unnecessary interference, other than minimal clarifications or explanations when needed. The material is powerful enough in its own right. She has done a great job and the book is a great memorial not only to her parents but also to all the men and women who went through the experience. At the end of the book, there is a call to anybody who might have information about families of members of the Men of 27 Line Section to get in touch with the editor. Don’t forget to pass the message on if you know anybody connected to the men or with contacts who might have more information.
In summary, this is a fantastic book for those interested in World War II, both from the point of view of war action and of the home front, those interested in stories about PoW, tales of human bravery, valour, endurance and the heroism of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Don’t miss this book and don’t forget to pass it on to anybody who might have known a member of the unit.
Here a bit about the editor of this fantastic book:
Hilary Custance Green was born in England, but had a European childhood, including two years at the top of the rock of Gibraltar and four years in a Belgian convent. She studied languages at school but was determined to become a sculptor. After her first degree, in Fine Arts at UEA, she went to St Martins in London and pursued her dream, working as a sculptor for twenty years while also getting married and having children.
She became fascinated by the brain and studied Psychology at the Open University, followed by a PhD at Cambridge University looking at Attention mechanisms in the brain. It was during this period that she started writing fiction. She found the contrast between the direct, clean arguments of academic writing and the rich, sensation-laden prose of fiction highly enjoyable.
Hilary aims to write entertaining, read-in-bed fiction, yet her books also look honestly and realistically at how individuals cope with what life throws at them. In 2003 Hilary’s first novel, A Small Rain, was published. She was interested in the way our social life is scattered, so you might practise music with one set of friends, take Spanish lessons with another and the confusion that can result when these groups meet. A Small Rain also looked at the way grief disrupts life and music and poetry can act as consolations.
Unseen Unsung was published in 2008 (with the eBook version appearing in July 2014). This opens in the ruins of a building and looks at the courage of ordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances. In this book, Hilary allowed her passion for music free rein but always making it accessible to non-musicians.
In December 2014 her latest novel, Border Line, will come out in both print and eBook format. This is a love story set in Slovenia, yet it also explores the dilemmas of living with guilt and choosing suicide and the vexed subject of assisted dying.
Hilary is also working on an exciting non-fiction project about Far East POWs in WWII. She has hundreds of letters written during WWII between a young couple and also from the wives and mothers of men imprisoned in the Far East. She wants to tell, using their own words, the story of separation and survival, hope and heartbreak that so many of our parents and grandparents lived through.
I asked the author/editor, in case any of the readers knew somebody who might have information about the Men of 27 Line Section and she suggested it might be worth checking this post on her blog for more information. And don’t forget her website.
Thanks so much to Hilary Custance Green and to Pen and Sword Books Limited for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK!