New novel celebrates hope, friendship and kindness among Girl Guides in WWII internment camp

‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ – the latest novel by award-winning author Hazel Gaynor – celebrates the hope, friendship and kindness among Girl Guides who were imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp in China in 1941. The book, which is a gripping and thoroughly enjoyable page-turner, is based on real life events.

Here Hazel, a former Brownie who lives in Kildare, tells us how she came to write her latest book:

Ideas for a book can come from many places, but waylaid Girl Guide cookies is definitely one of my most unusual sources of inspiration! The story – related in an American podcast I listened to in 2017 – went on to reveal the remarkable true events surrounding a group of British and American schoolchildren (who were also Brownies and Girl Guides) and their teachers, all of whom were taken to a Japanese internment camp in China during World War 2. I was absolutely captivated, not only because WW2 was an event I’d wanted to write about for a while, but because Girl Guides and war simply didn’t belong together. I wanted to understand how it had happened, how the children and their teachers had coped, and what lasting effect the experience had on them. What I didn’t expect to discover during my research was a story of extraordinary hope, friendship and kindness among such unimaginable hardship.

In order to help the children (and themselves) endure and survive their seemingly endless ordeal, the teachers increasingly turned to their roles as Guide Leaders, and to the principles of Girl Guiding. The sense of having a shared purpose, the close bonds of the Guide Patrol, the application of practical skills learned to earn badges, and being willing to lend a hand and always think of others helped to keep up morale of teachers and children during their time at the internment camp at Weihsien in north-eastern China, where conditions were unsanitary and food was scarce.

As an ex-Brownie Guide, the story of the Chefoo Girl Guides stirred a sense of nostalgia and a remembered fondness for my years in the Guide family. Brownies was a huge part of my life as a young girl growing up in a small village in Yorkshire. I vividly remember putting on my uniform every Thursday, and how eager I was to Lend a Hand, just like my character Nancy and the other girls are encouraged to do in ‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’, despite the impossible circumstances they find themselves in. During my research for the book I found a copy of the 1974 edition of The Brownie Guide Handbook on Ebay. It was the exact copy I had as a young Brownie!

Just before lockdown (in fact, it was one of the last things I did), I visited Newbridge Brownies and spoke to them about my life as an author, and told them about my new book. It was lovely to see how many of the traditions from my years as a Brownie are still followed today. The Brownie Ring and songs, especially. I thought a lot about the girls in my book as I spoke to the Newbridge Brownies, young girls who were, themselves, about to be thrown into strange and challenging circumstances during lockdown and would also turn to their Guiding skills and principles to help them through these difficult past few months.

As we commemorate key anniversaries of WW2 and learn more about the remarkable girls and boys, women and men who lived through those years, I hope their experiences will become more widely known and that their stories, like the one I share in ‘The Bird In The Bamboo Cage’, will continue to be told.

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is now available in all good bookshops and can be purchased online from Easons.