Stranger In My Heart by Mary Monro, ISBN 978-1911586685, paperback and ebook, pub Unbound 2018. Non-fiction biography/memoir. Available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and other online retailers. Over 30 Amazon.co.uk customer reviews, av = 4.8/5
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @monro_m276
In February 2019 Stranger In My Heart was No 2 Bestseller in WW2 Biographies.
Mary lives in Bath and practises as an osteopath in Bath and in the picturesque Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon, treating people three days a week and animals one day a week. She was formerly a marketing consultant and began her career with Cadbury’s confectionery.
Stranger In My Heart is Mary Monro’s first book. It has received coverage in the UK national press, various magazines and in the South China Morning Post. Mary is an experienced speaker and presenter and has appeared on China Radio International.
Mary was born and raised at a farm on the edge of the south Shropshire hills, the youngest of four children. She spent much of her childhood on horseback which left her with permanent damage to her right eye, a broken nose, broken knee-cap and broken coccyx. She has been bitten, kicked, rolled on, dragged, and has fallen off too many times to recall, but she loves horses.
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 in 1941, 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’. Her mother handed her a large brown envelope full of her father’s documents from the war. She began by transcribing his letters, reports and diaries and trying to make sense of them. Eventually, she realised that she had to go to China and retrace her father’s escape route to really connect with him. As she walked in his footsteps and researched the context of his adventures, she gradually understood how heroic he had been.
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?’
If you liked Dadland by Keggie Carew you will love Stranger In My Heart!
HRH The Princess Royal says in her foreword “an inspiring story of a Royal Artillery officer, his capture and escape from the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, concern for Prisoners of War left in Hong Kong and his subsequent understanding and support at the very beginnings of the Riding for the Disabled Association are remarkable in themselves. That his story has been told by his daughter after her own challenging travels is just as remarkable”.
Damien Lewis, one of Britain’s 20 favourite authors says SIMH is: “A well-written and deeply satisfying book, packed with information and adventure, as Mary Monro struggles to understand her WWII hero father, her inheritance, and herself. Above all, a damn good read!”
Why did you write this book?
People usually have a one sentence legend about what a parent or grandparent did in the World Wars – they were killed at Gallipoli; they fought at Montecassino; they were a PoW in Burma, that kind of thing. Often the next generation down doesn’t even have this one sentence legend. I had a text from one of my nephews, who was reading my book, saying he’d learned more about our family than he’d ever known before and he was only on page 8! We have to rescue these stories before they are lost forever – to honour the individuals and to complete ourselves. It’s very difficult to know where to start if you don’t know anything at all about the person – and why would you think to look?
How did you research the story?
I began with a brown envelope full of my Dad’s letters, reports and a couple of diaries. He was a master of understatement and he was writing in wartime, when he would have been restricted in what he was allowed to say. I had to dig deeper to find the context of his story, using the research facilities at the Imperial War Museum, The National Archives and the Roosevelt Presidential Library. I also had some help from professional researchers, which saved me from having to go to San Francisco! I read masses of books, including those by other men who had escaped from Hong Kong or who knew the key players in wartime China.
Did you succeed in connecting with your long-deceased father?
I began to feel I knew him better as an individual right from reading his letters – I recognised his wry humour, modesty and calmness. But it wasn’t until I went to China and retraced his steps that I really begun to see things through his eyes. And I only realised how brave he was when I researched the context of his wartime adventures. He’s still a puzzle but I feel I do know him – and myself – much better.
Let’s make a movie of your book. Give me the high-concept pitch.
A young officer survives intense battle and imprisonment in Hong Kong to escape through war-torn China, unable to hide or communicate, threatened as much by the Chinese as the Japanese. Later he faces another battle to rescue the PoWs he’d left behind, caught up in a power struggle between the architects of Pacific War strategy. In a bitterly ironic twist he ends up in the blood and sweat stained jungles of Burma, fighting a campaign that should never have happened. He dedicates the rest of his life to freedom.
What writers inspired you when you were writing Stranger In My Heart?
When I was writing the first draft I read H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald and I thought ‘hooray! I can write a book with several intertwined themes’. Sara Wheeler’s Magnetic North and Wade Davis’s Into the Silence reminded me about the great influence on my father of the exhilarating explorers of the 1920s and ’30s. I learned a lot about writing biography from Jane Dunn‘s books.
Pick three desert island books – works you couldn’t live without.
The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra, Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Heart of the Hunter by Laurens van der Post.
Do you have an idea for your next book?
I’m writing the story of women’s emancipation through the eyes of one of its lesser known pioneers. Dora Greene earned her mathematics degree in 1911 aged nineteen and set up her own business selling calculating machines aged 24, after losing the love of her life at Gallipoli in 1915. She was in the commercial technology business during the pre-dawn glow of the electronic age, indeed she was part of its ignition. She travelled the British Empire providing calculating and statistical services to governments and businesses in the 1920s and ‘30s and was a director of the company that supplied the ‘bombe’ machines to the Bletchley Park codebreakers in the Second World War. By the time she retired her company was gearing up to become the prime British competitor to American giant IBM. Her career spanned the electromechanical machine era, when women were confined to low paid, boring jobs with no prospects and female entrepreneurs were vanishingly rare. She was my great aunt.
My father’s escape from Hong Kong 1942 = 1 Feb
His arrival in Chongqing 1942 = 31 March
Father’s Day = Sunday 17 June 2018
Armed Forces Day = 29 June
Royal Artillery Association Service of Remembrance = Sat 7 July
VJ Day = 15 August
Remembrance Day = 11 November
St Barbara’s day (patron saint of Royal Artillery) = 2 December
Far East PoW & Heroic Escape
Major John Monro was imprisoned in Sham Shui Po PoW camp in Hong Kong from the end of December 1941 until his escape on the night of the 1st Feb 1942. It was a dilemma whether to stay or go – the privations and brutality of prison life vs the risk of execution or recapture if escape was attempted. Against the advice of his superiors Major John Monro decided it was his duty as an officer to escape. He couldn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, didn’t know the territory beyond the border with China and as a tall white man couldn’t disguise himself. When he eventually succeeded in reaching Chongqing he developed a plan to liberate the PoWs he’d left behind. The plan was part of an air strategy to win the war against Japan, and was approved by Roosevelt and Churchill but never actioned due to a clerical error.
As Mary researched the book she became intrigued with the men who her father mentions in his account of the battle of Hong Kong or those who also escaped from the PoW camp. As well as providing context for her father’s story, these brave heroes might have families who’d like to know that their memory was being honoured? Family history research sites such as Ancestry.co.uk allowed Mary to find family trees that included these men and then she messaged the creators of the relevant trees.
The responses were universally enthusiastic and generous. Sometimes the family didn’t know details that Mary was able to provide about what had happened to their loved one. Sometimes their relative had had an entirely different career after WW2 and the descendants knew little of their wartime history. Sometimes they were just happy to learn that this forgotten piece of WW2 history was being brought into the light. A sense of community emerged, with shared experience, shared loss and, invariably, shared silence on the part of the combatant. Several of the men’s family members attended the launch party for Stranger In My Heart and Mary was honoured to meet this extended ‘family’. Her own family has also been brought together, with cousins that Mary hasn’t seen for years remembering and connecting again through the book.
China & Hong Kong
The Battle of Hong Kong 1941 is a key date in the history of Hong Kong, when the Allied Forces and the local population worked bravely together against the Japanese invasion. The city was heavily bombed and little remains to remind us visually of that ‘Black Christmas’. Stranger In My Heart tells the story from an intimate, eye witness level, merging the contemporary account of Mary’s Artillery Officer father with a historical overview of events. John Monro’s friend and Chinese Interpreter, Andrew Cheung, helped to advise him on his escape route across the New Territories to China. Mr Cheung remained a lifelong friend, the two men exchanging Christmas cards every year. Mary met up with Mr Cheung’s daughter, Jenny, when she visited Hong Kong to retrace her father’s escape route from Hong Kong to Chongqing. One of Mr Cheung’s sons, Joseph, attended the launch party in Bath, UK.
Mary’s journey took her to Shaoguan, Guilin and Guiyang before arriving in Chongqing where her father had spent 18 months as Assistant Military Attaché in 1942/3. She was guided by Odynovo Tours who went to some lengths to research the WW2 history of the places she was visiting, deepening Mary’s understanding and enriching the book. Though tearful at times, Mary gained a real insight into her father’s and her own character by undertaking this quest – and she fell in love with China along the way!
Mary’s father, John Monro, was a founder of the Riding for the Disabled Association. The family farm, supplied with several ponies, was close to a school for blind and disabled children in Shropshire. Lt Col John Monro MC was driven by his wartime experiences that had left him with a deep understanding of the importance of freedom and agency. Riding gave the children a sense of liberation from their restrictive bodies and a new perspective on the world from the back of a horse – much higher and with a better view than from a wheelchair! Walking them down the lane on horseback led to beaming smiles, stronger muscles and co-ordination and a sense of partnership and freedom. The RDA continues to offer this amazing experience to 28,000 people each year, with a network of 500 volunteer groups nationwide. Mary is supporting the RDA by donating a share of the proceeds from her book. Baroness Dido Harding, Chair of NHS Improvement and a leading supporter of the RDA says: “Thank you Mary for sharing your amazing journey to get to know your father– and inspiring us all along the way!”
Mary has lived in Bath for almost 20 years and has been visiting the area her whole life. She works as an osteopath at Catharine Place in Bath and at Church Street Practice in Bradford on Avon. Her maternal grandparents lived in Warminster, Wiltshire and her parents met at Larkhill and married at Orcheston, near Shrewton, Wilts. Childhood holidays included visits to the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey. Her first taste of adventure came when visiting the (then) newly opened Longleat Safari Park, seeing lions up close and being mobbed by monkeys. Stonehenge, which Mary visited in the days when you could walk among the stones, sparked a lifelong interest in history and the relationship between people and landscape.
Mary was born and raised in Shropshire, attending Shrewsbury High School for her entire school career. She now lives in Bath and drives into Shropshire on the Kidderminster to Bridgnorth road, with the whole county laid out before her as she crests the summit at the Coton/Hampton Loade crossroads – a heartmeltingly beautiful view that always makes her feel glad to be home. Her mother Betty Monro was Secretary of the South Shropshire Pony Club, ran two Meals on Wheels rounds, volunteered at Attingham Park and with the Severn Hospice Ambulance and was a leading light in Smethcote Women’s Institute (She is now in a nursing home at Bicton, aged 91). Mary’s father, Lt Col. John Monro, was a keen member of the Royal British Legion and Secretary of the South Shropshire Hunt, when he wasn’t working hard on the farm at the edge of the Shropshire Hills. He was one of the founders of the Riding for the Disabled Association, bringing children from the School for the Blind at Condover to ride our ponies at the farm. The local Rea Valley RDA group continues its good work to this day at Berriewood Farm, Condover.
Stranger In My Heart is produced by crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. Unbound is the creation of three writers who started the company because they believed there had to be a better deal for both writers and readers. On the Unbound website, authors share the ideas for the books they want to write directly with readers. If enough people support the book by pledging for it in advance, Unbound produce a special subscribers’ edition and distribute a regular edition and e-book wherever books are sold, in shops and online.
This new way of publishing is actually a very old idea (Samuel Johnson funded his dictionary this way). Unbound is just using the internet to build each writer a network of patrons. Publishing in this way means readers are no longer just passive consumers of the books they buy, and authors are free to write the books they really want. They get a much fairer return too – half the profits their books generate, rather than a tiny percentage of the cover price. Unbound has now published almost 350 books in this way, with the help of over 150,000 supporters.