During the Blitz in London in 1943, an extraordinary event took place in Bethnal Green. On March 3, 1943, when the air raid warning sirens went off, thousands of people headed, as usual, toward the nearest bomb shelter, the local Tube station, a one-entrance location which could accommodate up to ten thousand people within a few minutes of their arrival. Some had come here many times and knew that they could reserve cots and places to sleep for the night. Others just took their chances, hoping that the emergency would not last long and that they would be able to return home soon afterward. On this night, something unique happened. One hundred seventy-three people died of asphyxia within a minute of their arrival, all suffocated in the crush on the first twenty stairs of the entrance. Ironically, "not a single bomb had fallen in the city that night."
Author Jessica Francis Kane, who studied the original government inquiry into the reasons for this catastrophe, draws on the facts of the real Bethnal Green case to create a fictionalized version of what went wrong. The actual facts, gathered and put into a report by Sir Laurence Dunne within three weeks of the events, had been hushed up by the government so as not to alarm the people or create questions about the government's ability to handle crises. Wanting to avoid placing blame on people who might become scapegoats, he had written his report with a concern for human feelings and for what humans need in order to deal with disasters during fraught times such as war. "Perhaps," he suggests, "we should only sometimes be held accountable for the unintended consequences of our actions."
A cast of repeating characters becomes more and more developed as the action proceeds. The attitudes toward refugees, especially Jews, affect the perceptions of some of the witnesses, while others, actively involved in the protection of lives during the Blitz, assume blame which was really not theirs to assume. Kane carefully reveals the facts of the case, but she does so within the context of the lives of her characters, always showing how and why these people say and do what they do. The characters elicit sympathy, and when all the details are known, the reader feels the same sorts of conflicts that Sir Laurence Dunne felt when he wrote his report.
Kane does a remarkable job of revealing the feelings of these characters for others who have been involved, and their feelings for the more general needs of the community, regardless of the strict definitions of right and wrong. She writes clearly and succinctly and avoids flights of sentimentality, always showing the big picture, the big moral issues, and the big questions of responsibility. A fine novel, The Report offers a different way of looking at historical events--rationally, but with a kindness toward the participants which protects their integrity and their future lives. "Speculative journalism" and the rush to blame are not yet a way of life at this time. Mary Whipple