CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 25. . . .March 2, 2012
The Home Front: Hopscotch and Heartaches While Daddy Was at War.
Margaret Dennis Owen.
Winnipeg, MB: Heartland, 2011.
208 pp., trade pbk., $19.95.
World War, 1939-1945-Children-Canada-Biography.
Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"...[T]he Bible says that God punishes the bad people. What about Hitler? And what about the Japanese who are keeping Daddy prisoner? Will God punish them?"
"Oh, Margaret, those are very deep questions. We just have to do the best we can in life and pray that God will take care of us. We can't tell what God will do to other people. There is always trouble in the world and I think it must make God very sad. The best thing any of us can do is put our trust in Him and in each other."
This sounded like good advice, but when I thought about Daddy in prison on the other side of the world, I didn't think God was being very fair.
In December, 1941, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. The Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Montreal Royal Rifles, who had been sent to assist English and Indian regiments in defending the crown colony, fought valiantly but were forced to surrender on Christmas Day, 1941. Many died in battle, and more died in Japanese prison camps where they were malnourished, fell prey to disease and were forced to do hard labour until Japan was defeated in 1945.
Lieutenant Frederic Victor (Vic) Dennis of the Winnipeg Grenadiers survived the ordeal, but in the words of his daughter, Margaret Dennis Owen, "The years of imprisonment had taken a heavy toll." The resulting variety of ailments led to Vic Dennis's death at a relatively young age, 67.
In The Home Front, Margaret Dennis Owen writes of life for four years without her father. British-born Vic Dennis came to Canada in 1930 and worked for the Bank of Montreal in Winnipeg. He was a member of the Grenadier Reserve Force and was called up for active duty when war was declared in September 1939, the same day his son was born. It was not until the summer of 1941, however, when he was sent for training in Brockville, ON, and then Jamaica, that his family's life changed drastically.
Margaret's mother, Lucy, anticipating that her husband would be spending the summer of 1941 in Brockville, rented out the family home in Winnipeg and brought the three children by train to the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Ontario. Sooner than expected, Vic was sent to Jamaica. For mother and children, the summer of 1941 was hectic, involving two long train journeys, inhospitable people, a paedophile and scarlet fever. After living under several different roofs, they finally returned to their home for the start of school in September.
The Dennises corresponded with "Daddy" throughout the fall of 1941. After he had been taken prisoner, they continued sending letters, but his replies were infrequent, and few of their letters reached him. (Not until February 1945 did he receive the Christmas parcel Lucy had sent him in 1941.)
Benjamin Proulx, an escapee from Hong Kong who later wrote about his feat in his book, Underground from Hong Kong, stopped in Winnipeg on his way home from Vancouver to Montreal and told Lucy Dennis that her husband was fine, but very thin, and that some prisoners had beri beri and dysentery. In August 1942, the family received a "stilted" letter from Vic, one which said little, but ended: "I shall be coming home some day."
Capable and self-reliant, Lucy Dennis received support from her many friends. Margaret and her brother and sister enjoyed the normal childhood pleasures of their place and time - everything from the Shrine Circus to vacations at Victoria Beach - but her father's plight was always on young Margaret's mind. When an elderly acquaintance died, for instance, she wondered if her dad was also dead: "We hadn't heard from him in such a long time." During the V-E celebrations in the spring of 1945, Margaret did not feel that the war was over for her and her family. When she finally learned that her dad was coming home, she thought of how she had changed and wondered if he would like her. Her fears were put to rest when she embraced him at the station and when he held her hand on the drive home.
Insensitive teachers added to Margaret's burdens. Her mother wondered aloud at one point if "all the bright young women" who would normally have gone into teaching had, instead, gone into the armed services. One teacher pressured Margaret to buy a war savings stamp each week, something that Lucy Dennis, on a limited government allowance, could not afford. "I should think that since your father is overseas, you of all people would buy one every week to help end the war," the teacher told Margaret in front of the class. Another teacher objected to Margaret's staying home from school on the first day that her dad was back home.
Margaret Dennis Owen's well-written, compelling memoir is illustrated with family photos, newspaper articles, telegrams and pictures of Winnipeg landmarks. A 1945 newspaper photo shows the three Dennis children on young Roger's first day of school, a few days after learning that their father was safe. This joyful picture might have made a better cover illustration than the design chosen by the publisher.
Margaret Dennis Owen is clear, vivid and accessible in blending a child's perspective with an adult's wider knowledge. Readers who grew up in the 1940s will feel nostalgic, though probably not for the winter clothes of the era. Owens has done her readers a favour by explaining, in her Introduction, why the Canadian battalions were in Hong Kong. She was wise in not attempting to describe the grisly prison camp conditions. Details might be too much for younger readers, and besides, young Margaret didn't know the full horrors during the time frame of the memoir. The Home Front is an excellent starting point for budding historians to begin learning about this often-neglected part of World War Two.
On December 8, 2011, in recognition of the 70th anniversary of Japan's invasion of Hong Kong, the Japanese government apologized to Canadian veterans for their treatment in the camps. Margaret Dennis Owens' book shows that the tragedy affected the veterans' families too.
Ruth Latta's interest in history is apparent in her novel, The Old Love and the New Love, (Ottawa, Baico, 2012, firstname.lastname@example.org).
on this title or this review, send mail to email@example.com.
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