Three Came Home


316 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-7710-4502-6




Reviewed by Bryan Hayter

Bryan Hayter worked as a marketing and communications co-ordinator for a consulting engineering firm; he lived in Elora, Ontario.


Three Came Home, here reissued in a Canadian paperback edition, is a marvelous book to read whether again or for the first time. However, it must be noted that it is a demanding book emotionally. While some accounts of war shock and sicken, this recollection of life in a Japanese internment camp in North Borneo charts the harrowing path of human emotion in an atmosphere of extreme deprivation.

Even as she recovered from her three-and-a-half-year ordeal, Mrs. Keith was able to provide a thoughtful, balanced, even occasionally humourous overview that, surprisingly in light of her personal ordeal, speaks more of compassion than hatred. Based on her diary, hidden throughout the imprisonment and written in tiny pencilled letters, the narrative reveals a startling range of reactions to camp life. How some survive, how prisoners and guards interact, how others fail to survive — this is the stuff of this wartime classic.

But Mrs. Keith’s intimate look at life “in extremis” is never as poignant as when it deals with the children who were taken with their mothers to this facility. That the youngsters suffered physically, we can readily imagine. But Mrs. Keith takes pains to examine the emotional toll of this peculiar existence. She notes time and time again that the children often led the way in retaining high standards of social behaviour. But, on the other hand, the strain showed itself in many ways. An example of this youthful frailty is the temper tantrum engaged in by her little son George when, after three years of internship, failure to obtain a toy boat at a Christmas party overwhelms him: “George watched it go. His world broke into bits. This was worse than war, or being hungry, or toothache, this was the end of everything.”

No parent could fail to see the effects of war in a different light after reading about this and other similar incidents.

One of the more unusual benefits of literary fame accrued to Mrs. Keith, who was, in the war years, already well known for her first book about the Far East. Many times Japanese officers tried to cushion the blows of her life because of their respect for her understanding of Asian people. One, the camp commandant, even had her write an account of an internee’s life — a favorable one, however.

In summary, Three Came Home is a rare book, well written by an unusually sensitive and perceptive author. It stands as a strong condemnation, strikingly relevant today, of man’s inhumanity to man.

One laments, however, that this edition offers no update on the life of this American-born writer, married to a British government official, who later adopted British Columbia as her home. The new edition fairly cries out for a modern-day comment on its significance, not to mention some look at the Keith family post-war years. Could anyone who reads this story put the book down and not wonder where little George is today and what scars he bears from such an unusual imposition on his young life?


Keith, Agnes Newton, “Three Came Home,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 3, 2021,