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3.7 11
by Jessica Francis Kane

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A stunning first novel that is an evocative reimagining of a World War II civilian disaster

On a March night in 1943, on the steps of a London Tube station, 173 people die in a crowd seeking shelter from what seemed to be another air raid. When the devastated neighborhood demands an inquiry, the job falls to magistrate Laurence Dunne.

In this


A stunning first novel that is an evocative reimagining of a World War II civilian disaster

On a March night in 1943, on the steps of a London Tube station, 173 people die in a crowd seeking shelter from what seemed to be another air raid. When the devastated neighborhood demands an inquiry, the job falls to magistrate Laurence Dunne.

In this beautifully crafted novel, Jessica Francis Kane paints a vivid portrait of London at war. As Dunne investigates, he finds the truth to be precarious, even damaging. When he is forced to reflect on his report several decades later, he must consider whether the course he chose was the right one. The Report is a provocative commentary on the way all tragedies are remembered and endured.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Kane's first novel (after the short story collection Bending Heaven) revolves around the real-life Bethnal Green tube station disaster that occurred in London during World War II and claimed the lives of 173 people—the largest civilian accident of the war in Britain on a night when no bombs were dropped on the city. Trying to make sense of how so many people could die of asphyxiation on a stairway shelter, Kane creates a story whose characters are themselves either part of the accident or were involved in making follow-up inquiries. Laurence (Laurie) Dunn is the magistrate appointed to investigate and write the accident report within a short time of its occurrence. After 30 years, Paul Barber, a young filmmaker making a subsequent documentary about the tragedy, tracks down Laurie to interview him. Others who figure prominently are Ada Barber and her daughter, Tillie, two survivors of the accident. Weaving together the socioeconomic factors of London's East End, the weariness of war and refugee displacement, and the personalities of the various locals, this work of historical fiction implies that in times of peril there are sometimes no safe havens. VERDICT Kane keeps the reader consistently interested as fact and speculation evocatively intertwine. Highly recommended.—M. Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ
Kirkus Reviews

Kane reimagines a real-life civilian tragedy during World War II, when 173 people, fleeing an apparent air raid, were crushed to death in a stairwell in a newly built Tube station in London.

The Bethnal Green tragedy of March 3, 1943, is all the more terrible and poignant because no bombs fell over London that evening. And bizarrely, every death was by asphyxiation; only one victim—a survivor—suffered a broken bone. Kane, author of the story collection Bending Heaven (2002), moves deftly among perspectives on the catastrophe: We eavesdrop on war-battered townsfolk, the tardy policeman, the overburdened priest, the devastated shelter-chief who feels responsible.Kane's command of period detail is marvelous. She focuses on magistrate Laurence Dunne, appointed to conduct an investigation and produce a report that will be both thorough and innocuous, that will exploreand explain the tragedy while alsoassuaging fears and aiding "morale...the altar on which reason was daily sacrificed." Finding someone to blame—whether it's Jewish refugees, a war-weary mother chasing two young daughters, neighborhood boys with firecrackers, the government or malfeasant officials—is a psychological necessity, and everyone is looking for someone on whom to pin responsibility. Kane adroitly weaves together various theories and gives a sense of the grim succor that assigning blame can provide grief-stricken citizens. Unfortunately,the book is hampered by a contrived framework—30 years later, an orphan of the Bethnal Green tragedyinterviews Dunne for a documentary—that undermines the eloquent take onmoral intricacy and ambiguity.

Some plot problems aside, a deft, vivid first novel.

Product Details

Portobello Books
Publication date:

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The next morning, Bethnal Green woke to a quiet dawn, a city going about its business, geese flying overhead, the fire department pigs snuffling as they moved to their pen in the Museum Gardens. A cold front had come in behind the warmer air and sent all hope of an early spring skittering away like the petals and feathers in the gutters. There were no angry mobs or fiery newspaper headlines. No outraged prime minister calling for an inquiry, no monarch full of compassion and remorse. The king was on a short holiday in Northumberland, actually, due back on a train sometime Saturday. The only evidence of the tragedy was the presence of two constables posted by the entrance to the shelter and the battered police barriers they stood behind. There was not even a list of the dead posted, as usually followed a raid.

Overnight, some authority had made a decision: the accident would be kept secret. The large number of dead was difficult to hide, however, so after a few hours the authorities announced that the shelter had, in fact, taken a small, direct hit. The population of Bethnal Green, puzzled by the total absence of any bomb damage, remained unconvinced. Then it began to rain, the perfect climate for rumor: it was Fascist incitement, a Jewish panic, an Irishman holding the gate against the crowd. There'd been a land mine, a new German weapon, a gas leak.

In the afternoon a crowd gathered at St. John's. The people were hesitant about inquiring after friends and relatives but could not resist gathering where chance might deliver the news. Many were nervous and helpful while they waited but then collapsed or dissolved in fury when they learned the one they'd hoped for was dead. Some wandered inside to the church pews, and some sat in the drizzle on the front steps, the temperature difference between the two not significant enough to inspire religious devotion in those not already so inclined. Rev. McNeely worked tirelessly, silently, bringing blankets and handkerchiefs to those inside and out. He was sleepless and pale, poorly clothed and obviously cold, but he moved with such conviction, no one thought to slow him down.

Ada sat on a corner of the porch, wrapped in a brown coat, rocking. Her chin-length hair was ragged from rain. There was a raw spot on each palm where she'd dug in her nails when they pulled her away from the stairs. She kept thinking about Emma's birth. Wasn't that a severing followed by a reunion? This had been a severing, so wouldn't Emma be returned to her? Birth, death, reunion-the ideas grew confused in her mind.

She knew she should go home. She kept thinking she had, so well could she picture the walk up the road to their house. Over and over again she thought she'd got up and was walking-she could feel just how to do it-but then she'd look down and discover her legs were still bent, her hands wrapped around her ankles, her cheeks pressed into her knees.

"There was room along the right for an instant," she said, then waited for the church bells to finish chiming the half hour before continuing. "That's how Tilly and I, and I thought . . ."

"Hush," the women nearest her said. "Hush." They patted and petted her.

In the streets around the church few people spoke. Those who did shook their heads and whispered. Approaching and offering help seemed too loud an action in the boroughwide stillness. The mourners on the church steps were not the usual bombed-out homeless; they were not the disconnected victims of indifferent bombs. An awkward feeling grew: these mourners had survived a tragedy in which they'd somehow played a role, and no one knew what to do.

Every now and then someone pointed at the shelter entrance, then up the road, tracing lines of approach, recounting what had happened. It was said that an off-duty constable had hoisted himself over the fallen people and in this way climbed from the top to the bottom of the accident but was still unable to do any good. Someone else said they'd heard about a woman who arrived late. She'd got in, but over ground she thought unusually soft. Later she knew she must have walked on bodies.

The people stared, listening to the same stories again and again. They shook their heads. The impossible idea: the victims (no one knew how many-some said one hundred, others five hundred) had died for nothing. There had been no bombs.

Without anyone asking him to, before anyone had any idea of the nature and extent of the accident at Bethnal Green, while the crew organized by the Regional Commissioners in the early morning hours after the disaster was still sweeping and scrubbing the steps, Warden Low resigned from his position at the shelter. He simply wrote a letter and posted it to the home secretary, Herbert S. Morrison. Warden Low would have written to the king if he'd known how. Then he sat in his kitchen and waited for dawn, for Sarah, for her help once again in making sense of the world.

How would he tell her? They'd never had children, never conceived. This was the great disappointment of her life. Early in the war, they'd heard a baby crying in a collapsed building, and she'd dug in the broken cement for hours until she found the boy, alive.

Low felt Sarah's hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes. "James?" she said. "What's wrong?"

"I thought we needed more light and that it would be all right." He gulped from his mug, but the coffee he'd made and poured for them was cold.

"What would be all right? James, what's happened?"

"It rained," he started. "The stairs were slippery." When he didn't continue, Sarah pressed a bobby pin into the back of her upswept gray hair and put the coffee away. Tea and coffee each had a place: tea for comfort, coffee for courage. But what James needed now, she thought, was brandy. She opened the cabinet beneath the sink.

"Sarah," James said, so quietly she barely heard him. "Something terrible's happened."

Sarah didn't turn. "I know, and you're going to tell me. But wait a minute while I get us settled."

She set out the brandy, two small glasses, and started peeling the potatoes for breakfast. Serve potatoes for breakfast three times a week, the Potato Plan advised. Lord help us, Sarah thought. She switched on the wireless so that their neighbors wouldn't be able to hear whatever it was James had to say. She'd been married to him for thirty-five years, and if he'd done something wrong at the shelter, he was still the best man she knew.

While she was moving about the kitchen, he began to tell her that he'd replaced the bulb above the stairs in the shelter, the one in the ceiling above the first flight down. It was the first item he'd taken care of after checking in. But he'd replaced the standard twenty-five-watt bulb with a higher-wattage bulb.

"That shouldn't matter, should it?"

"They smashed it, but I knew we needed more light." He shook his head.

"Why would they smash it?"

Low made a sound of disgust in his throat. "They worry about the bit of spill up on the pavement, that it will be seen in the blackout. It terrifies them."

"How do they do it-smash the light? With their hands?"

"I don't know. It's happened five times, at least. We've replaced the glass covering five times."

She tied her robe closed, then scooted her chair around the corner of the table and pulled his glasses off.

"You're tired," she said.

"Yes." His eyes, unshielded, were watery and large.

"I bet they'll say the bulb was burned out," James said. "It was the night before, but I replaced it. First thing." Then he repeated what he'd already said about the rain, the slippery steps. Sarah pushed the brandy closer. He sipped, then mentioned his desk at the shelter, how fond of it he was, how its sturdy Victorian legs, so incongruous in the modern, straight-edged station, pleased him. They seemed a reminder of all they were fighting for.

"James," Sarah interrupted. "Please. There's enough of that on the BBC. Tell me what happened."

Her husband blanched a shade whiter and told her about the crush. Afterward they sat in silence, holding hands, Sarah wondering about the dead, who they were; James, how death had come to them.

"You know," he started after a time. "Some of the people trapped on the stairs yelled at us to put our light out even while we were trying to help them." He swallowed and shook his head.

"Let me see your resignation."

"You can't, Sarah. It's done, sent."

"What will you do?"

He nodded, expecting the question. "I'm a fire watcher," he said. "I imagine they'll still have me."

"There are the allotments on Russia Lane," Sarah said. "You could do good work there with all you know about gardening."

"Yes," James agreed.

"The light couldn't have been the only problem."

"I'm sure it wasn't," he said.

"If they smashed it, there will be glass on the stairs. They'll see that it wasn't your fault."

James stared.

"It wasn't your fault. James?"

He hit the table with his fist. "Quiet!" His sudden anger surprised them both. When Sarah stood, she made a pot of coffee.

At the town hall Bertram was given the job of documenting the dead, recording what was in their pockets, and returning the items to the families. The mayor and deputy mayor, senior clerks and wardens-even some of the more capable members of the Home Guard-were all preoccupied with petitions from the borough council, the Regional Commissioners, the London City Council, the Ministry of Civil Defense, and the Ministry of Information. Even the Ministry of Food was concerned, about the victory gardens and window boxes that might now lie fallow if the number of dead proved to be as high as was thought. A campaign to sustain the gardening effort was suggested, with "Save the Green in Bethnal Green" proposed as a motto. Mr. Wycomb, senior clerk-a friendly man who blinked and swallowed frequently, sending his Adam's apple up and down-guffawed.

"Someone's got us confused with the West End, mate," he said.

There were also the editors and reporters, borough engineers, city engineers-all concerned with matters more critical than the contents of pockets. What had gone wrong? What could be done to prevent it from happening again? Would there be a public or a private inquiry? These questions were compelling because still unclear.

The dead, however, were clear enough. They needed to be counted and identified; their personal items, returned. Mr. Wycomb put his hand on Bertram's shoulder and handed him a notebook.

Bertram's expression must have worried him. "Whatever you want, Bert. It isn't going to be easy."

"Where are they?"

"All over, I'm afraid. You might start at the hospital. Best I can tell, some are there and some are at the morgue. The maternity ward got a few of the women and children, apparently."

"And Regional Commissioners want to know what's in their pockets?"

"That's right. And bags and purses. You know. Whatever they were carrying."


"Not sure, mate."

"But what do they expect to find?"

Wycomb rubbed his eyes. "Who knows."

Bertram took the notebook. "Do I have to use this?" The cover was green, reminding him of the girl's shoes that night. That the job had fallen to him seemed preordained.

"Of course not. I was just trying to get you started. Do whatever you like. Maybe they want incriminating evidence. Maybe it's an assignment from those eavesdroppers, Ministry of Information. Maybe they just want to return the belongings to the families, -who have already lost so much'"-he parodied Herbert Morrison. "I'm sure that's what we'll read in the papers. Can Clare go with you?"

"I might see."

"I would."

But when Bertram asked the next morning, Clare said she couldn't. She had an assignment from Mass Observation, for whom she volunteered.

"They're sending me into Stepney. They want to know what the Jews are saying about the accident." She was making him breakfast, and when she saw his face, she helped him gather what he'd need and pack his bag. She even walked with him part of the way to the hospital. "Are you all right?" she asked.

He nodded, but they both knew it was a lie.

"Bring everything home tonight, and I'll help you sort through it."

He nodded. "I don't think I can do this."

She kissed his forehead. "I'll help you tonight."

Alone, Clare's kiss drying on his skin, Bertram could think of nothing but the accident, how he'd been sitting in the park, watching the poplar leaves across the water. Then what? He couldn't recall, exactly. Did he walk or run? Speak or scream? He did remember the feeling of his hands on someone's back, someone else's hands on him. He'd heard a siren, a child's cry, everything enfeebled by the wind that came up suddenly around them. A shop awning flapped white above the crowd. He remembered thinking that he'd never seen so many people on the Roman Road, all converging on the shelter, streaming out of shops, climbing out of buses. The night was clear-he remembered that-but the pavement damp, amplifying the slap and grind of so many people rushing. The crowd had grown thick fast. The faces Bertram remembered were confused but not frightened. Most people were moving quickly, not talking, he thought, except for one man deep in his pints, belting out the national anthem as he ran.

And when was that? How close had Bertram been to the entrance then?

In front of the hospital gates, Bertram could smell a coal fire and damp earth, two seasons in the air on the same day. A gentle rain fell over the street, the raindrops steady enough to set the leaves all around to nodding. He tried to see it as encouragement, but it looked more like shock. He adjusted his umbrella, then crossed the street for the cafe next to the boarded-up Red Lion.

The shopkeeper asked how he was feeling; did he need a roll with his tea?

He shook his head.

"Are you sure? I've some left over from yesterday."

He took the roll-it seemed easier than refusing again-then sat by the curtained window and watched the street through the large holes of cheap lace. He saw a boy of eight or nine walking with his mother. They were making slow progress, and it wasn't until they were closer that Bertram realized it was because the boy's eyes were closed. He seemed to be trying to impress his mother with his intimate knowledge of the street, naming every place as they passed with his eyes tightly closed. In front of the bombed sites, he would throw his arms up and make noises with his mouth. She remained unperturbed. Bertram saw her pause only once, when she pulled her hand out of the boy's to brush something from her cheek. Her boy's eyes popped open then, and he waited.

Tea and roll were indistinguishable (both tasted vaguely of potatoes), but Bertram began to feel better with something in his stomach. When he left, the shopkeeper called after him. "There now. I thought you were hungry!"

People want to take care of each other, he thought. Until they can't.

And when had that been? How close was he to the entrance then? His fear, what he didn't want to tell Clare, was that he might have been pushing on a dead man. How could he know? Where had the boundary been?

Meet the Author

Jessica Francis Kane is the author of the story collection Bending Heaven. Her stories have been broadcast on BBC radio and have appeared in a many publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's, the Missouri Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her essays and humor pieces have appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Morning News.org, where she is a contributing writer. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children.

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The Report 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
knitter888 More than 1 year ago
I did not enjoy the book. Read 66 pages and stopped. More for a historian to read. Read it for a book club.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jessica Francis Kane tells a very compelling story that draws a reader in from the first chapter. The book has many layers and stories revolving around a tragic event in wartime London and its aftermath. I read it through in one sitting. I could not put it down. I highly recommend it for book clubs.
TheChaoticBuffalo More than 1 year ago
I received this book through the First Reads giveaway program on Goodreads. This is the story of an accident that claimed the lives of one hundred seventy-three Londoners at the entrance to an air-raid shelter on the evening of March 3, 1943 and of how individuals, a community, and a government dealt with its aftermath. It is a novel based on an actual incident during World War II. Kane leads us to an understanding of the accident by following the conduct of the official inquiry into its causes and the preparation of a documentary on "The Report" of the inquiry thirty years afterward. In coming to this understanding, we also begin to see that events of a disastrous or catostrophic nature are seldom the result of a single cause and thus defy the justification of laying the blame at any one individual's or group's feet despite the desire of some to find who's ass to kick. The story also highlights the fact that, after such an incident, almost everyone involved wishes to hide some aspect of it - whether for selfish reasons or noble; whether for actual guilt or merely imagined. Despite the somewhat dark subject matter of the book, Kane's simple but direct prose makes the story very compelling. Her characters are portrayed at their best and their worst. The result is our beginning to wonder where on that spectrum we as individuals and a community would fall under similar circumstances.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jessica Francis Kane writes an excellent story about a tragedy that took place in a London subway station used as an air raid shelter during the Nazi bombings of World War II, and its' lingering aftermath. One can even take note of the eerie parallels to recent historical events since 9/11; i.e. playing the blame game, perceived or real.