A bright if modest tale of stiff-upper-lip indomitability against deadly odds.
“This is a story of what large-scale history does to the small-scale people caught up in its events,” writes London-based journalist Osborne by way of introducing the saga of her great-grandmother Lilla. Born to colonial parents in China in the glory days of the empire, Lilla learned of the tragic side of life early on: her father killed himself when she was just short of three, ostensibly because he had been bitten by a rabid dog, more likely because his wife was in love with another man. Lilla married young and moved with her army officer husband, Ernest Howell, to India, only to learn that the match wasn’t quite heaven-made; even so, “in an almost childish way, she seems to have loved Ernie most when he wasn’t interested in her.” He died when his troop ship was sunk by a German submarine in 1915, and, Osborne writes rather archly, Lilla “played at being Ernie’s widow just as she had played at being his wife.” Returning to China, she lived comfortably until December 1941, when Japanese troops interned the European residents of Chefoo. Just shy of 60, Lilla had begun writing a cookbook some time earlier; now, imprisoned in Chefoo and later in the frozen northern Chinese city of Weihsien, she returned to it just to have something to do. The recipes aren’t much, notable mostly for their absence of any kind of spice, but they clearly must have been challenging to write; as the camp rations were systematically cut as the Japanese began to lose the war, as meat and flour and oil went by the wayside, “bringing herself to type out these recipes must have begun to feel like self-torture,” but also a curious exercise in hope. In all events, doing the work kept Lilla alive—indeed, she lived to be 100.
A minor story, to be sure, but very well told.