Among the many tragedies of World War II, the largely forgotten sinking of a ship that was ferrying 90 young British children to the safety of Canada must be counted.
The City of Benares left port on Sept. 13, 1940, with the children, their volunteer caretakers and some paying passengers, part of a convoy that was supposed to keep them safe. Three days out, the British destroyer left them in the belief that they had reached safe waters. On Sept. 17, the Benares was torpedoed in a storm and sank rapidly. Seventy-seven of the children died, along with six of their 10 escorts. Lewis picks up the tale as children join the evacuation process, focusing on Ken and Bess, whose experiences shine a light on those of the whole “seavacuee” group, and Sonia, whose family has booked paying passage on the ship. Each child’s voice is distinct and believable. Their heroic experiences after the nighttime sinking—Bess surviving by tying herself to an overturned lifeboat, Sonia on a frigid raft, and Ken, whose overfilled lifeboat sails eight days until rescue—are all vividly, harrowingly realized.
Riveting and heartbreaking alike, especially as readers count down the days to the tragedy they know is coming. (Historical fiction. 11 & up)