NINETEEN STEPS, by Millie Bobby Brown with Kathleen McGurl
On the evening of Wednesday, March 3, 1943, 173 men, women and children lost their lives descending the steps — 19 of them — to an underground air raid shelter in East London. It was the largest civilian tragedy of the war and yet it was a mystery how it happened. There was no air raid that night, so why had the crowd panicked? Adding to the confusion: The victims were all wet; death in all cases was by asphyxiation; and there was only one broken bone. For two days, the government withheld information from the public, citing issues of security and low public morale. However, after all that East London had endured during the Blitz, to be blamed for panicking at this point was intolerable and unfair. The residents of Bethnal Green demanded an inquiry.
I first learned of the Bethnal Green tube station disaster almost 25 years ago when I was living in London. I happened to attend an event at the British Library for a series of books published by the London Stationery Office. The series was made up of official government reports not previously available in popular form, and the volume the series editor held in his hand — and spoke passionately about for a few minutes — was the final report of the Bethnal Green inquiry. I was captivated and asked my British friends about it. Not one of them knew what I was talking about.
And that is why “Nineteen Steps,” the first novel by the British actor Millie Bobby Brown, is valuable. There are very few books or stories about what happened in Bethnal Green in March 1943 because the survivors were told never to speak of it, adding to their trauma. It took 50 years to get a small historical plaque at the station entrance, then 24 more to erect what the community long wanted: a proper memorial statue listing the names of all the victims. There is no healing without remembering, and there is no remembering without stories. So thank goodness Brown’s Nanny Ruth, who was a survivor of the crush, told her granddaughter what she remembered.
In “Nineteen Steps,” Brown, working with Kathleen McGurl, weaves her grandmother’s experience into a portrait of a community in wartime. Nellie Morris is 18 years old, a remarkably plucky assistant to the mayor, surrounded by family and friends. Her life, especially her relationship with Ray, a scrappy American airman, feels formulaic and thin. After the accident, when all in Nellie’s orbit are devastated in one way or another, her work overlaps with the historical inquiry and the book’s meaning deepens. She takes notes during the investigation conducted by Laurence Dunne, a magistrate. Over the course of several weeks, Dunne interviews more than 80 witnesses, but mysteries remain. What exactly caused the crowd to panic and push down the steps? Was it a car backfiring? The sound of a secret new antiaircraft gun? Were local politicians hiding what they knew?
It’s an enormous responsibility, telling a community the tale of its own tragedy. Nellie feels this keenly and must figure out how to navigate the ruinous effects of blame. As the inquiry comes to a close, her community begins to grapple with the long shadow of grief. You might open “Nineteen Steps” for the celebrity name, but stick with it for the history of an under-recognized event of World War II, a disaster still not satisfactorily resolved for many.
Jessica Francis Kane’s latest novel is “Rules for Visiting.”
NINETEEN STEPS | By Millie Bobby Brown with Kathleen McGurl | 320 pp. | William Morrow | $28.99