Singapore, December 7, 1941. The Japanese attack without warning and everyone is scrambling to get out of Asia and back on home turf – including the Hamptons. Hazel’s father had been in the country investigating business opportunities when the attacks began, and her mother refuses to leave until they locate him. When passage on a ship is found, one sister must go, and Hazel chooses to stay behind with her mother, although conditions deteriorate to the point of no return and instead of getting out safely they end up as civilian prisoners of war – “guests of the emperor”.

Since the Japanese never signed onto the Geneva Convention, let’s just say there’s not a lot of interest in humane conditions for their prisoners, although they are more than happy to use them for forced labor. As the weeks stretch into months, the women are moved from one camp to the next, on foot and with no concern if any die along the way. They must learn to develop their own society of rules and laws to keep order amongst themselves, sharing the little food and clothing they are allowed for the good of the community, always putting the children first and all the while not knowing if this day will be the last. 

“But the gunshot had stunned them all into a realization of their situation. They were animals in a cage.”

“I don’t want people to dislike me, but I realized today that I want to stay alive more than I want to be liked. Far more. And I’m going to do everything I can to survive this.”

We all know who won the war in the end so I’m not spoiling, but what of life afterwards for those who do make it out? Can you just walk back into the same life after years of hell and starvation?

“I’ve learned to eat very slowly to make three ounces of rice last half an hour. I’ve learned to treat insect bites with bits of rag boiled in palm oil instead of iodine and bandages. I’ve learned how to balance two buckets of water on a pole without spilling it…I can make a pair of shorts with a rusty needle and the sleeve of a dead nun’s habit, and I’m very good at not seeing the protein-rich bugs we leave in the rice now for the nutritional value…So, Hazel, tell me: how is any of that going to do me any good in the outside world?”

And how do you deal with those on the outside who have no concept of what you’ve just lived through?

“…but don’t you realize that we went through a lot too? War is hard on everybody. Why, the rationing alone was enough to make us wild. A limit on how much butter and milk you could buy and-and the shortages!…For a while I was down to two pairs of nylons and thought I’d never get any more.”

Wow, just wow. This book covers a serious topic and won’t be for every reader, especially those who like things sugar-coated. You will cry and laugh along with them, and cheer for the ones strong enough to survive. This is out of print, but very much worth hunting down a copy, and I understand it was made into a movie for Lifetime Television but outside of a minor listing on IMDB I’ve not found out much else about it. 4.5/5 stars.

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