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August 25, 2023

The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor ~ A Review

by Susan Roberts

"War had altered and removed so many things, but perhaps the greatest loss was certainly.  Everything was a question, and - like many things - answers were in short supply."

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

book cover of WWII historical fiction novel The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor
June 2023; Berkley; 978-0593440315
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); historical fiction

This well-written and well-researched novel is one of the most emotional World War II-era novels that I've read in a long time.  It's based on real events and highlights the heroism of the people involved.

It's 1940 and England is sure that Germany will be bombing them and many people even believed that Germany would try to invade them.  The government wanted to keep the children safe.  Some children were sent from the large cities to the rural areas of England as part of Operation Pied Piper.  Another push by the government was to send children to Canada or Australia for the duration of the war.  

Lily is the widowed mother of two children.  They live in London and she wants her children to be safe but she also wants to keep them close to her.  She finally decides that to keep them safe, she needs to sign them up to be sent to Canada.  The government reassures her that the boat with the children will have a Navy escort and should be safe from German U-boats during the journey

Alice is a quiet unassuming kind of person.  She's content working in a library and teaching school.  Her mother keeps telling her that she needs to do something to help the war effort and she decides to sign up to be an escort to a group of children going to Canada.  She's nervous and excited about the upcoming trip.

The trip goes well and after most of the people get over their sea sickness, it looks like smooth sailing into Canada until a German U-boat torpedoes their ship and sinks it.  Alice manages to get into a lifeboat with several children and other adults.  They spend days on the sea, hoping for rescue while the parents at home are dealing with the loss of their children.  Alice and Lily's lives and the lives of Lily's children are meshed together as everyone fights for survival.

The novel is told in alternating chapters by Alice, fighting for her life in a lifeboat and Lily, dealing with her fear that her children are lost.  Both women are trying to be brave under terrible circumstances.  The scenes on the lifeboat are gritty and real and the reader will be rapidly turning pages to find out if they all survived.

The author has done a tremendous job at her research.  I read a lot of WWII books and this is the first one that I can remember that is about children being sent from England to other countries for safety.  Be sure to read the author's comments at the end of the book to find out the brave women that this story was based on.

Three thousand one hundred children were sent to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa under the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) scheme between July and Sept 1940.

SS City of Benares, carrying 90 CORB children, was stuck by a torpedo fired from a German submarine in the Atlantic Ocean just after 10 pm on Sep 17, 1940. They thought they would be safe—known as the limit of convoy escort. The third torpedo fired at the City of Benares struck the fatal blow. The ship sank within 30 minutes.

Only seven CORB children were initially rescued by HMS Hurricane. It reached the survivors sixteen hours after their ordeal began. Many who had survived the torpedo strike making it to a lifeboat perished in the horrendous weather conditions. A torpedo struck a second vessel, and one of the lifeboats was mistaken for another, thinking all had been accounted for. Eight days later was found, and six more CORB children survived. The special rescue ships had saved over 4K lives by the war's end.

Buy The Last Lifeboat at Amazon

Susan Roberts grew up in Michigan but loves the laid-back life at her home in the Piedmont area of North Carolina where she is two hours from the beach to the east and the mountains in the west.  She reads almost anything but her favorite genres are Southern Fiction and Historical Fiction.  You can connect with her on Facebook.

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