CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 20. . . . June 6, 2003
In the memories and literature of the Second World War, internment and concentration camps carried a special significance. For a large group of civilians, including women and children, the war in the Pacific meant not just imprisonment, but subjugation to a very different culture. These journals of a British expatriate (written in the form of an "endless never-to-be-posted letter") offer an engaging portrait of just what that experience meant for the formerly privileged representatives of the European empires. Orphaned early in her transient life, Peggy Pemberton-Carter at the outbreak of war was a member of the British community in Shanghai during its initial occupation by the Japanese. Her comparative maturity (being in her late thirties at the time) provided an understanding of and empathy for the culture and people of China, something that gave a particular insight to the experiences she was about to undergo.
Journals are a particularly interesting medium for the examination of an experience like this; for, by definition, they are unlike memoirs or autobiographies written without the benefit of hindsight. What the future will bring indeed, the full picture of what is happening at the moment are unknown; and so we are provided with a direct and unmediated participant's perspective. (That said, an excellent foreword provided by the editor puts Pemberton-Carter's experience in the broader context of the Pacific war; and an afterword by her biographer, Katherine Gordon, provides a fascinating account of the writer's post-war experience.) After liberation, she travelled in the first instance to the United States, and then moved to Victoria, B.C., where in an almost fairy-tale ending, she married a European prince she had met prior to the war, and became, as Princess Abkhazi, a fixture in the life and folklore of the city.
At one level, then, the book provides an intriguing story of an inherently interesting individual life. At the same time, it affords a humane and perceptive insight into the phenomenon and experience of internment. Given the ever-present danger of discovery, an internment camp journal would have to be written with some measure of caution; but the reader is stuck by a candor and frankness that suggest the picture drawn is fair and full. Deliberately making the journal letter-like ensured that its focus would be descriptive and narrative, rather than introspective and private in the fashion of diaries. In addition, a collection of drawings of camp life gives form to the physical environment being described.
Internment camps have gathered their own mythology, and the Pemberton-Carter diaries go a considerable distance in squaring those myths with reality. As the quotation above will indicate, much of the life was deadly tedium; but it is nonetheless reassuring to see the strength of the human spirit in such circumstances. The journal outlines the struggle to forge and maintain a genuine life and community within the circumstances of confinement and privation; and it provides an intriguing vision of individual behavior and of social interactions in such a setting. Pemberton-Carter makes light neither of the war nor of the incarceration; but her enduring humour and the strength she showed herself able to draw from her various pets and acquaintances leaves the reader with a measure of confidence in human moral endurance, under even the grimmest circumstances.
Alexander Gregor is a former Professor of Higher Education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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