This fictional treatment of missionary children escaping World War II China reads almost like a memoir. In a brief search on the internet, I couldn’t find any information about the author, Betty Vander Els, but I would almost bet that this story is a fictionalized version of her own experiences or those of a very close friend. In the book in 1942 “Ruth”, about eleven years old, and her younger brother, Simeon, are sent away to an emergency boarding school for missionary kids so that they won’t end up in the concentration camp of Weihsien, captured by the approaching Japanese. However, their emergency school site is no safer from Japanese bombing raids than their homes were, and so the children are evacuated over the Himalayas to Calcutta.
The contrast between the children’s petty day-to-day concerns and the enormous events that are happening around them is one focus of this book. Ruth considers herself to be a naughty girl. She gets spanked (or strapped as the book calls it) a lot. But her infractions seem petty and inconsequential, too, for the most part: wandering away from the group, forgetting responsibilities, being disrespectful to teachers. Ruth’s concerns are to survive school and her nemesis, Miss Elson, and to take care of Simeon as her parents have charged her to do. The book paints a vivid picture of what it must have been like to see the war and its effects from a child’s point of view.
Ruth is a bit of an annoying child. She calls Simeon “dope” and “dummy” and “cowardly custard” and other such epithets frequently. She does forget to do her work, and she and her friend Anne play tricks on the teachers and band together to outwit the other children and get their own way. However, at the same time Ruth is quite concerned about taking care of Simeon, and she tries to teach him to be tough and to stand up to hardship. Simeon and his friend, Paul, are both daydreamers and and imaginers who run away, get lost, and find themselves in trouble with alarming frequency. And ever in the background and on the periphery of the children’s lives, there are Japanese bombers, American flyers, Chinese children, and Indian amahs. The setting is both exotic and dangerous, and Ruth and Simeon sashay through all the danger and foreign cultures with style and childlike confidence. In short, they act like children.
There’s a sequel (that I haven’t read) with the same characters called Leaving Point: “Home from boarding school to spend Christmas with their missionary parents, fourteen-year-old Ruth and her brothers find that the Communist Revolution has brought about many changes and new restrictions that complicate Ruth’s growing friendship with a young Chinese girl who may not be what she seems.” (Goodreads)