This novel is based on the diary (and other material) of an American in Nanjing when the Japanese invaded in 1937. Minnie Vautrin is the temporary head of a small Christian college funded by donations from the US. Most of the faculty and students as well as the president have gone elsewhere as it becomes more and more evident Nanjing is going to be attacked.
The story is told from the point-of-view of Anling, who helps Minnie run the school. They make elaborate plans so that the school can be a place for women and children refugees and figure out where they may be able to put 2000 people. The actual invasion is, of course, more chaotic and they end up with more than 10,000 refugees.
This novel is almost like two different stories. The horrors of the attack of Nanjing are detailed. It is a fiction book, but obviously based on historical events. Minnie has to make some terrible decisions and fights to keep the refugees on campus safe. After the fighting is over and the occupation of Nanjing continues, the action slows down dramatically.
It is still challenging as many of the refugees stay. Minnie open a school for them to learn crafts, but a former president, Mrs. Dennison, arrives and wants to return the college to the way it was without really understanding all that happened over the past year. Anling also faces her own problems with a son who was studying in Japan at the time the war broke out and a husband being pressured to join a puppet government.
Here Minnie goes on a short vacation about a year and a half after the initial attack. She’s suffering from depression and the stress of dealing with Mrs. Dennison who wants to get of the rest of the refugees. She comes back to find many gone.
“Minnie rebuked herself for caring too much about her personal feelings and about losing face. How could she let petty personal disputes stand in the way of more important matters, such as saving a woman’s life and protecting the two schools? … She couldn’t escape feeling small-minded. How could she make amends? The more she thought about her faults, the more disappointed she was in herself. ”
Nanjing Requiem is a worthwhile, but difficult, book to read. It is difficult because of the depictions of war and war crimes committed on civilians. It would be really interesting to read Minnie Vautrin’s actual diary, but I don’t think that’s very accessible.