New Historical Fiction to Read Now: When We Were Young & Brave

Book: When We Were Young & Brave
Author: Hazel Gaynor
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: October 6, 2020
Rating: [usr 5]

Hello Lovelies!

Seven months of lockdown. Insanity, right? Like many others, I have had difficulty getting back into reading 10+ books a month. I decided to take a break from Facebook and attempt to not stay on Twitter too long, except to read the headlines, so I am not completely out of the loop.

I found that forcing that little break has allowed me to actually finish reading a few books on time. I’m also less anxious.

It took stepping away for a few days to see how crazy our world has become. So I’m going to focus on me and my life, because I can’t do the crazy anymore.

So that leads me to today’s new release from Hazel Gaynor. I read “Meet Me in Monaco” earlier this year and it was absolutely lovely. The whole story of Grace Kelly procuring a special perfume for her wedding, as well as a love story between the woman creating the scent and a reporter, was just sigh worthy.

When William Morrow reached out to ask if I would review this title, I did not hesitate, because Gaynor is a wonderful writer and spins such wonderful tales.


Their motto was to be prepared, but nothing could prepare them for war. . .

The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home sets her unforgettable new novel in China during WWII, inspired by true events surrounding the Japanese Army’s internment of teachers and children from a British-run missionary school.

China, December 1941. Having left an unhappy life in England for a teaching post at a missionary school in northern China, Elspeth Kent is now anxious to return home to help the war effort. But as she prepares to leave China, a terrible twist of fate determines a different path for Elspeth, and those in her charge.

Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School, protected by her British status. But when Japan declares war on Britain and America, Japanese forces take control of the school and the security and comforts Nancy and her friends are used to are replaced by privation, uncertainty and fear. Now the enemy, and separated from their parents, the children look to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – to provide a sense of unity and safety.

Faced with the relentless challenges of oppression, the school community must rely on their courage, faith and friendships as they pray for liberation – but worse is to come when they are sent to a distant internment camp where even greater uncertainty and danger await . . .

Inspired by true events, When We Were Young and Brave is an unforgettable novel about impossible choices and unimaginable hardship, and the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher in a remote corner of a terrible war. 

[Synopsis from Goodreads.]

Review of “When We Were Young & Brave”

This book is absolutely marvelous and beautifully written. I fell in love with the book within the first 25 pages.

This book is told from two different perspectives: Elspeth, the teacher, and Nancy, the young student. Telling the story in this manner allows the reader to have a deeper understanding of the situation at Chefoo School.

There’s a teacher running from her past to heal her broken heart. There is a young girl who is forced to leave her parents for a British missionary school. The ones they love are both spirited away from them, and they must learn how to cope without them.

The teachers at this school teach the students how to be prepared. For the girls, they learn how to do this by being a part of Brownies (i.e. Girl Scouts). So when Japanese soldiers take over the school at the beginning of World War II and the Chinese servants are dismissed, the students and teachers pull their weight and make chores a game. They make it easier for the kids to want to help out. In fact, teaching this to the kids in the very beginning helps them in the coming years as they face one internment camp after another.

Before the gardener leaves Chefoo School, he gifts Elspeth nine sunflower seeds. A Japanese soldier (nicknamed Trouble) demands to see the package. In his evil manner, a seed is tossed out and he stomps it into the ground. But like a lotus flower extending itself out of the mud, that sunflower seed grew. It gave hope to the students and the teachers that despite their circumstances, something beautiful can still come from it. Life moves forward and blooms.

Those seeds become very important. They serve as markers on their journey.

After a year, the teachers and the 100 students leave Chefoo School for Temple Hill. It is at this point that I really felt worried for them. Where are they going? What is going to happen to them? Will they be ok?

Then there’s Trouble. In every war there are good soldiers and then there are the dangerous ones. Trouble is one of the dangerous soldiers.

The same group of soldiers follow them from one internment to the next. Home Run is probably one of my favorite characters in this book. The children love him and he does his best to do what is right, despite the circumstances. Why? Because he has young children of his own that he misses and these kids remind him of them.

One of the questions I had at the end of the book was what happened to Home Run after the war? What about his family? I would have liked to know more.

This book comes with content warnings. For those sensitive to rape or animal abuse, please note these warnings. Unfortunately, rape is systemic to war. If Gaynor had left this out of the story, I don’t believe she could have been 100% true to what happens to prisoners of war. She touches briefly on what happened to Chinese women when Japan invaded. It is a foreshadowing of what happens later on in the book.

Mind you, this is just a tinny part of what happens in this story. It is not the main focus. It does not go into the full details of the abuse, but it is there.

There are a lot of great quotes and lessons throughout this book. The signs of an excellent piece of literature is when you can find multiple moments that resonate within you. This quote above is my new life’s motto, taken from page 191 in the book.

So many historical fiction books out there focus on Europe during World War II. I loved that this one was based in China.

I enjoyed this story. Just wonderfully done. I highly recommend reading “When We Were Young & Brave” if you enjoy historical fiction. You’ll appreciate the new change in WWII scenery.

[Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review. This post contains affiliate links.]

You can pick up a copy from any of these PW approved retailers.