Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

"Some in Bethnal Green were eager for the report, sure it would reveal something to help them make sense of the senseless. Others only felt suspicion. The inquiry, they believed, was merely a distraction, something authorities did in order to avoid accountability. How could someone not present that night tell them what happened?"

A tragedy took place on the evening of March 3, 1943.  It was during wartime in London and killed 173 people but had nothing to do with an air raid.  The tube station at Bethnal Green had been fitted with bunk beds and cots to keep the community safe and comfortable during the endless nights of enemy attack.  Women would struggle to navigate the stairs going down into the shelter while carrying large bundles of supplies, sometimes along with a baby or toddler in tow.

On the night of March 3, the usual crowds were arriving but reports varied on whether or not there were sounds of enemy aircraft coming from the sky.  The amount of light in the entrance of the shelter was also in question.  One thing was certain, by 8:30 pm eighty-four women, sixty-two children and twenty-seven men were dead and sixty-one others were left injured after being crushed on the stairs.  As if the incident wasn't tragic enough there were government officials anxious to keep the details secret.

Kane writes about this tragedy in a style I've heard referred to as "faction".  The facts are dovetailed with fiction and she pulls it off quite well.  Paul Barber is a documentary filmmaker with ties to Bethnal Green who in the seventies seeks out Laurence Dunne, the magistrate assigned to conduct an inquiry.  With generations between them they meet at Dunne's home which Barber thinks resembles something of a time-capsule from another era.  Upon hearing his interviewer's last name, Dunne ponders a tie to a family involved in the tragedy and starts counting back the years and inquires about Paul's age.  Could there be a connection?

The weight of responsibility Dunne faces is monumental.  He is dealing with a grief-stricken community, prejudices regarding the influx of Jewish refugees, guilt by wardens on duty at the shelter and shame over behaviours by war weary citizens.  His patient manner and refusal to finger-point make him an excellent candidate for the job.  Wading through dozens of conflicting bits of evidence must have been trying but the evidence given by a little girl, Tilly, is the most shocking.

A fascinating and compelling read that has spurred me on to learn more about this wartime disaster.


  1. I work quite near Bethnal Green and really want to read this book. Your review makes me want to read it even sooner.

  2. Joan, Knowing what the area is like will make the book even more interesting for you. Don't hesitate to pick it up!

    I may whip out there on the tube next month just to see the plaque.

  3. "Faction" is new to me, too, but I loved the this book. Will be recommending it to my book club next month.

  4. I knew about the sad incident but not about this book. Sounds really interesting. K x

  5. I picked this up at the London Transport Museum, of all odd places, and have now moved it up my TBR list, thanks to your excellent review. When you are in London you might be interested in The Original London Walks Blitz tour. I highly recommend all of their walks but this one sounds really interesting. I was sorry I didn't have time for it when I was last there.

    And I meant to post this a while back when you were asking for recommendations for London, you might enjoy The Perfect London Walk by Roger Ebert (the film critic). It takes you through Hampstead and Highgate Cemetary and by Keats house and is really lovely.

  6. JoAnn, You beat me to this one! Glad you enjoyed it and hopefully your book club is receptive to picking it up. We can all identify with being stuck in a crowd somewhere, it's just really scary to think how easily things can go so wrong.

    Kristina, Check with your library the next time you're visiting. G might find it interesting as well.

    Heather, Ooh I LOVE London Walks and have been on approx 8 to 10 of them! The Blitz walk takes place during the afternoon if I'm not mistaken so depending on how my itinerary shapes up I may join in. And thanks for mentioning the book, I had no idea Roger was such a fan!

  7. I LOVED this when I read it - not a feel good read by any stretch of the imagination, but such a brilliantly and compassionately written account of an awful tragedy. I normally hate 'faction' books but this really was excellent. You can see the station for yourself when you come over, Darlene!

  8. bookssnob, Kane did a brilliant job of describing the event in a way that horrified you without being sensational. Can't wait to see what she comes up with next! And the Bethnal Green station is now on my list of places to visit. I love drinking in the atmosphere of somewhere I've read about.