Stranger In My Heart by Mary Monro
Review to follow
John Monro MC never mentioned his Second World War experiences, leaving his daughter Mary with unresolved mysteries when he died in 1981. He fought at the Battle of Hong Kong, made a daring escape across Japanese-occupied China and became Assistant Military Attaché in Chongqing. Caught up in Far East war strategy, he proposed a bold plan to liberate the PoWs he’d left behind before fighting in Burma in 1944. But by the time Mary was born he’d become a Shropshire farmer, revealing nothing of his heroic past.
Thirty years after his death and prompted by hearing him described as a ‘20th Century great’, Mary began her quest to explore this stranger she’d called ‘Dad’. Stranger In My Heart skilfully weaves poignant memoir with action-packed biography and travels in modern China in a reflective journey that answers the question we all eventually ask ourselves: ‘Who am I?’
Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new book?
I have written numerous technical and academic articles and I am an experienced lecturer and presenter, but this is my first book. I live in Bath and practice as an osteopath treating humans of all ages as well as animals, mostly horses and dogs. I was formerly a marketing consultant and began my marketing career with Cadbury’s confectionery. I enjoy learning languages and studied Mandarin before retracing Dad’s escape route across China. I would say that I reached toddler level (some spoken language but unable to write), which was surprisingly useful.
I was born and raised at a farm on the edge of the south Shropshire hills, the youngest of four children. I spent much of my childhood on horseback, which left me with permanent damage to my right eye, a broken nose, broken knee-cap and broken coccyx. I have been bitten, kicked, rolled on, dragged, and have fallen off too many times to recall, but I still ride racehorses for fun.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?
Well you’d better make a cup of tea and sit down – that was a long journey! Initially I was just exploring my father’s life and trying to process his loss. Then I became spellbound by China and decided to recreate my father’s escape route from Hong Kong to Chongqing. I was reluctant to go to a country where I don’t speak the language, so I spent a couple of years learning Mandarin. When I eventually arrived in China (5 years into the journey) I wrote a blog to keep everyone back home up to date with my travels. The trip raised as many questions as it answered and made me realise that my experience might resonate with a wider audience. People who’d lost their parent at a young age; people who want to understand how their personality was shaped by their forbears; or people who have a war hero undiscovered in their past. I delved further into the context of Dad’s story and decided to turn it into a book. Eventually I had a manuscript that I was happy with and tried to find a publisher, some hen’s teeth and a unicorn. Unbound generously picked me up when everyone else had rejected me and a year later, after a brilliant edit, here we are!
Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
In no particular order these are some of my favourite books: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, The Heart of the Hunter by Laurens van der Post, Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood, Perfect Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, West with the Night by Beryl Markham, The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson, The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra, A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry.
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
My reading was mostly pony related as a child (Ruby Ferguson, Anna Sewell) along with magical books such as AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Gerald Durrell’s The Talking Parcel and Kipling’s Just So Stories. I became a bit more adventurous as a teenager and was lucky to live in a home where interesting reads were left lying about as hand me downs from my parents or older siblings. I’ve always had a thing about justice and, looking back, a lot of my reading in my late teens was about justice for the underprivileged, minorities and the planet. I was also exploring epistemology (not that I knew what that meant at the time), seeking guidance on how to think and what to think about. I also read a ton of other books but in the ensuing 35 years I have forgotten most of them – these writers are some that have stood the test of memory: John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Alan Paton, John Irving, Robert Pirsig, Joseph Heller, AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Jan Morris, Fritjof Capra, Laurens van der Post, Nadine Gordimer, Franz Kafka, Voltaire, Albert Camus, George Orwell, Tom Wolfe, Maya Angelou.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
I am overwhelmed by the reviews I have received – knowledgeable book lovers who don’t know me writing lovely, insightful things about my book. It seems miraculous!
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
My husband Julian Caldecott, who is a brilliant writer himself, has been endlessly supportive and encouraging and didn’t even mind when I took off to China without him! I also have to give a special mention to my fellow authors at the Unbound Social Club (our Facebook Group) who happily support, advise, listen, share and inspire in equal measure. They are the best bunch of mates I’ve never met and I doubt I’d have survived the process without them. Being an author is a lonely business and I have author friends, with traditional publishers, who have been rightly envious of the Unbound community.
*Thank you for taking part in the Q&A on my blog, I wish you every success with your writing career.
Extract from Stranger In My Heart (final chapter):
And who am I? Apart from being immensely proud of my father and even more upset than before that he’s not here to talk to, I have an expanded sense of self. Since completing my journeys to China and writing this book, I have become more confident of my place in the world. I am doing more writing and teaching, speaking up. I have something to say and the confidence to say it. It seems that reliving my father’s experiences has added a perceptible strength to my being. As though the flow of courage from parent to child was interrupted in its flight but has now landed. At last I understand and can internalise the Monro family motto – alis et animo – wings and courage, indeed.
So many of us share this experience – the loss of a parent or grandparent without knowing them as a person rather than just as a role. We often don’t realise that their life contributes to ours in diverse and subtle ways; that if we had had the opportunity to really talk with them, they could have taught us so much about ourselves . The generation who saw the Second World War are steadily leaving us and they have a tendency to remain silent about their experiences. This reserve seems to me to be modest and protective, preserving their own sanity and hiding horror from us like a clutch of deadly eggs under a serene and soft-feathered facade.
The modern habit of sharing every thought and feeling is alien to them at the least, offensive at worst. But this is an enormous loss to us, even if we don’t fully appreciate it. Those who were non-combatants have just as much to teach us about resilience in adversity and how to live well in difficult times. The two-minute silence on Remembrance Sunday helps to make many people pause and reflect, and maybe, now that research is so much easier to do, it will also encourage more people to enrich their lives by delving further into their family history. Bereavement is never easy, but it has been truly joyful getting to know Dad and feeling the full force of his personality. It’s been like falling in love.