Book review

Music on the Bamboo Radio by Martin Booth (1997)

None of us really knows how brave we might be in an emergency. And anyway, different emergencies call for different kinds of response, don't they? Nicholas Holford has no idea what will be required of him on that Christmas morning when he hides behind the hibiscus bush and watches the Japanese occupying forces make their way up his shattered street in Hong Kong.

He is eleven years old. His father is somewhere out there as part of the defeated volunteer British armed force. His mother is somewhere out there nursing the wounded. There's just Nicholas at home, and what should he do now?

Actually, he isn't entirely alone. There are three loyal Chinese servants left in the household. They melt away into the landscape before the onslaught of the Imperial Japanese Army - and they take Nicholas with them. He just has time to leave a hasty note for his parents ...

There is no hope for him as a European. If the Japanese find him they will imprison him and he is unlikely to survive. Tang and Ah Mee disguise him as a Chinese peasant boy and, along with Ah Kwan the gardener, they manage to leave the island of Hong Kong under cover of night. Once on the Chinese mainland they hasten to the remote village of Sek Wan, Tang's family home.

And here he lives for the rest of the war. Nicholas makes a monumental adjustment. He takes on a new, Chinese name. He is Wing-ming. He struggles to learn Cantonese. He pulls his weight on the family farm - he dries fish, collects firewood, sluices out the pigsty. As he learns to cope Nicholas becomes strong and resourceful, calm and thoughtful.

He becomes a very useful person indeed. With his knowledge of both English and Cantonese he can be a linkman between the Communist Chinese guerrillas and the British Army, who are working together to oppose the occupying Japanese force. Eventually, he is the one they ask to make an important delivery to the British troops in the Hong Kong prisoner-of-war camp. It's a very dangerous job. Keeping the flow of information into the camps, keeping morale up in the camps is called 'playing music on the bamboo radio'.

The first Japanese soldier appeared round the boulder. He was so close that, by the starlight, Nicholas could clearly define his soft-peaked field cap, its leather chin strap and the buckles on his belt. No sooner had he moved on than another appeared. Nicholas closed his eyes. He could not watch the terrifying procession.
The Japanese patrol was gone in less than ninety seconds but, to Nicholas, it seemed like ninety minutes during which time, at any moment, he expected to hear a voice grunt and a rifle butt punch into his chest. When something finally did touch him, he jumped and sucked his breath in so hard it hurt.
It was Ah Kwan, grinning widely in the starlight. Behind him stood Tai Lo Fu. He, too, was grinning.
'You are a good soldier,' Tai Lo Fu whispered. 'You keep your head when it is dangerous ...'

He was a boy at the beginning of the war, but he's a young man by the end. I think you will love this book. A thrilling adventure - with a slightly open ending. Having made one enormous adjustment at the beginning of the war, Nicholas finds he must make another at the end.

What can I read next?

Well, this is a huge war time adventure story. If you enjoy this you will probably also enjoy Martin Booth's other book:

For a modern desert island adventure story, with a link to the Second World War, you might like to look at this one by Michael Morpurgo:

Robert Westall writes excellent Second World War stories, perhaps just a shade harder than Martin Booth's style. Have a look at:

There is an excellent story set in the future that you might like to look at. It is by Nina Bawden:

Actually, the future is a great place to have an adventure. You might also like to look at this one by Marcus Sedgewick:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Music on the Bamboo Radio features in these lists: