This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.4.
On September 17, 1940, the City of Benares steamship was sunk by a German U-boat while crossing the Atlantic to Canada. The 406 passengers included 90 British children who were sent by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), the wartime evacuee program that Kit Pearson writes of so poignantly in her Guests of War trilogy (1991-94). Of those passengers, only 158 survived: only 7 of these were evacuees. This disaster ultimately led to the cessation of CORB. September 17 tells the story of the City of Benares sinking from the point of view of a number of the passengers.
I found the story difficult to engage with initially, not because of any fault in the writing, but because I already knew the fate of the ship. Like the Titanic, the City of Benares sank in less than an hour, so understandably the actual incident is not the focus of the story. In the opening chapters—titled by date, and alternating between characters—we meet a number of the evacuees, as well as a mother and her children who are paid passengers. We learn of their goals, their anxieties, the hope they have of safety in Canada, the homesickness some of the children experience. We follow them through the official process and the waiting while mines are cleared from the harbour to provide safe passage. On board, we experience the excitement of the novelty of travel on a luxury liner. Slowly, trepidation recedes into the background as our interest in the characters develops. In the end, as we know would happen, not all of the characters remain; those who do, though (adults and children) experience the horrors of shipwreck in icy waters and reveal the strength needed to survive them. The night after the attack, we are devastated by the loss of life, but relieved when the lifeboats are found: all but one. Lifeboat 12 is missed in the search; the 46 men and boys on board are finally found 8 days later, starving, dehydrated, and clinging to life; we breathe a sigh of relief when Ken waves his shirt and those in Lifeboat 12 know they have been found. While we mourn for all the lives that were lost, the fine balance of emotions in September 17 does not ultimately leave us devastated.
Amanda West Lewis has achieved what I initially thought unachievable: she has created a children’s novel that tells of harrowing loss, yet pulls readers into the heart of the event and leaves us with a feeling not only of sorrow, but also of community and love.