Challenges / Highly Recommended / Historical Fiction

Review of The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

The Report was a really cool book, and one you should read because it tells a fascinating historical story and is well-written at the same time.  This is the kind of book I love because it truly brings history to life.

The Report is about an incident in Bethnal Green, a London neighborhood, in 1943.  It’s the largest loss of civilian life in the U.K. during World War II.  But it wasn’t caused by a bomb or a battle.

During World War II, the London Tube stations were used as air raid shelters.  The Bethnal Green station was still under construction but mostly completed in 1943.  On March 3, residents were alerted that bombing was expected that night because of a British attack on Berlin.  More people than usual went to the shelter that night.  The stairwell leading down into the shelter was dark, the stairs were uneven and slippery.  The crowd was nervous.

Someone in the crowd fell at the bottom of the stairs, and the crush resulted in 173 people dying of suffocation, 62 of them children.

The British government tried to hush the incident, but people pressed for an official inquiry.  Was it a structural defect in the shelter?  Lack of police presence?  Crowd panic?

This book tells the story, in a semi-fictional way, of that inquiry.  The story centers around a real-life person and event: Sir Laurence Dunne, a magistrate at the time, interviewed about 80 witnesses, explored the shelter site, and reviewed relevant documents like an earlier request by shelter officials to improve the stairwell.

The focus is really on the psychological aftermath of the event.  The residents of the town are desperate to blame someone or something, but the same crowd psychology that was so dangerous in the tunnel is equally dangerous afterwards.  People feel guilty because they (unintentionally?) contributed to the pushing, or because they failed to save the life of a child.  A lot of people direct their anger towards recent refugees, the Jews.  A number of witnesses claim they heard bombs falling and that’s why they pushed – only there aren’t any records of bomb testing that night.

The incident happens fast.  A single person falls and the crowd falls on top of her.  The sad thing is, had the crowd spilled onto the landing most people would have lived.  Instead, everyone got tangled up and were asphyxiated.  There were police at the bottom trying to pull people out but everyone was interlocked.

The families of the fallen want answers and they want retribution – and only the Inquiry keeps them in check.  And Dunne becomes increasingly aware that whatever he reports will have repercussions.

So this is a war story but not a war story.  It’s fiction but not fiction.

The story is told in a past-present format.  It’s 30 years later, the anniversary of the tragedy, and a documentary is about to be aired.  Unlike a lot of books that switch back and forth, this one is written with a pretty light touch that doesn’t distract from the real focus of the story.

This is one of those books that sets out to inform – but it’s so well written that you will be drawn into the story.  It’s the complete package.  You will feel for these characters, you’ll have a sense of what it was like to walk down those stairs that night.

This book got to me, not only because I love fiction set in World War II, but because I already have a bit of crowd-phobia.  I know what it’s like to walk into packed Metro stations, to stand armpit to elbow in the trains, to know that a foot in the wrong place on a busy game-day could send someone falling onto the tracks.  And that’s just my Metro ride.

I don’t like crowds. I hate the feeling of being surrounded, of not being able to walk freely.  Attending big events with lots of people is just not my thing and I avoid them when I can.  This book is a vivid reminder that crowds ARE dangerous.  Kane describes in vivid detail (although it all happened shockingly fast) the tangle of limbs, the wall of crushed bodies, the panic of people who couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back.

You can find another good review of this book, and a You Tube video interviewing survivors, at this site.  But I recommend reading this book first.

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