Friday 9 January 2015

The red suitcase by Jill Harris

The red suitcase by Jill Harris (Makaro Press, 2014)

ISBN 978-0-9941069-0-2

30 chapters; 240 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, air force, Bomber Command, Goldfish Club, New Zealand, Germany, Dresden, Cologne, young adult fiction (Years 8-11)

At first I didn't think this was going to be a book about war (and in the interview below, Jill Harris says that “even though her uncle's story was inspirational, she didn't want to write a ‘war book’”.) Set in the present day, it deals with contemporary issues like bullying and making friends, but also experiments with ideas of time, touches on terrorism and reaches back into the events of World War Two.

Ruth and her family have been living in Indonesia until a terrorist bomb forces them to leave. For various reasons the family is temporarily split up, with 14-year-old Ruth and her dad staying with her grandma at Takapuna Beach in Auckland. Ruth finds it difficult readjusting to New Zealand life and a new school, and what’s more, she finds herself experiencing strange episodes that seem to relate to an airman and his WW2 air crew. (These sections are written in italics.) The "red suitcase" of the title contains family papers that may provide a clue.

I found the dialogue between members of the crew in the plane both convincing and moving. When you remember how young many of them were and what responsibility they bore for each other, it's no wonder these air crews became melded into such tight units.

The foreword is a 1915 poem by Rudyard Kipling, titled "My boy Jack". Kipling lost his only son in WW1 and spent years searching for his body or grave, but never found him.

‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
‘When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
 Not with this wind blowing, and this tide. 

The red suitcase features on Bob’s books blogwhich always has reliably good reviews.

You can also listen to John McIntyre from The Children's Bookshop reviewing the book here.

You could ask yourself some of the questions that trouble Ruth and Thomas, or that Ruth tries to find answers for:
  • Was the bombing of German cities during the war “mass murder”, “aimed at civilians, not strategic war targets”, or was it justified because “the Germans started it”?
  • “Everyone knew about people doing terrible things, but how did you stop them? And what about the good people who did terrible things, like dropping bombs on all those cities?”
  • Where is Cologne, and what happened there in the war?
  • Where is Coventry, and what happened there in the war?

About the author
You can read about Jill Harris on the NZ Book Council site, where she mentions that she grew up in Takapuna and remembers how she "made huts using towels hooked onto the barbed wire that stretched along the beaches to keep the Japanese from landing during the Second World War." 

There’s a lovely newspaper interview (and photo) here about the inspiration for this book: how a  few years ago, Jill Harris' cousin gave her a stack of old letters written by her uncle Colwyn Jones, a navigator in the RAF's Bomber Command – “the group with the dangerous job of flying deep into German territory during World War II to attack enemy targets.”

I especially like these words of hers: 
"A former librarian and school-teacher, Harris took up fiction seriously around 2002. "I got sick to death of being the last car in the carpark at work. And I thought 'If you don't stop working, you will never get your writing done'. So I just stopped."
Writing for young people demands brevity, she says. "You can't go on and on about characters, and you can't get too heavy on what the book's saying ... It's all little dabs of colour.'"
Another interview (with equally lovely photo) here mentions that fact that Jill had been fighting serious illness, and sadly she died, aged 76, on Christmas Day 2014

Thanks to Barbara Murison for this photo of Jill at the launch of The red suitcase
Other books you might like:
In the newspaper interview above, Jill Harris mentions that her son was using her uncle’s letters for a a non-fiction book, Under a bomber’s moon. You can read about it here, along with extracts from the book and lots of added material including photos and maps.

Jill Harris' other books (not about war) are all well worth reading: At the lake, Missing Toby and Silwhich won an Honour award in the 2006 NZ Post Book Awards. We are so lucky that she made that decision to stop being "the last car in the carpark" and concentrate on her writing. 

Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens is a time travel book about World War One. Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer is another title that explores ideas of moving back through time (and into war-time) and finding your own identity

Things I didn’t know
I first heard of The Goldfish Club ("gold for the value of life and fish for the sea") at the funeral of a friend’s father, but this story prompted me to find out more. Founded in 1942, it was an exclusive club for airmen who had survived a wartime aircraft ditching. There are some fascinating details here and here. The club was set up informally, but “news ...spread rapidly, even to POW camps, where eligible aircrew soon claimed membership. Their cards and badges were sent to their next of kin. …By the end of the war the club had over 9000 members.”

I checked on the Auckland War Memorial Museum library catalogue and they hold a ring binder containing details of 95 NZ airmen who survived after being shot down or forced to ditch their aircraft into water (sea, river, lake or canal) during WW2. And the Air Force Museum of NZ has a framed certificate for Warrant Officer Jim Colway, awarded to him after a 1942 crash over the Marlborough Sounds; he was the only one of the seven crew to survive.  

In 2012, the Bomber Command Memorial was unveiled in Green Park, London, in a ceremony attended by thousands of veterans (including some from New Zealand) and relatives of the 55,000 airmen who died serving in Bomber Command in the war.

I find these statues very poignant - the seven Bomber Command crew, just back from a mission, searching the sky, waiting for their comrades to return - but there is an interestingly ambivalent review of the overall memorial here
The statues of seven airmen stand at the heart of the Bomber Command Memorial 
(photo taken by Mark Rea for the RAF Benevolent Fund) 

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