‘Wisdom, compassion and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of man,’ said Confucius. And they are probably the three words I would use to summarise my father. He was also conservative to a Victorian degree, patriarchal and emotionally distant. A private man who liked parties. An adventurer who stayed home on the farm. A man who lived in the moment and planted trees that would not mature during his lifetime …”


Mary Monro was 18 when her father, John, a Shropshire-based farmer, died. Yet it was only years later, in 2007, at her mother’s 80th birthday party, that her curiosity about him was peaked, following a family friend’s pronouncement that her father was one of ‘the 20th-century Greats’. 

Mary realised that she knew very little about John Monro, other than he’d been a lieutenant-colonel, had served in the Second World War, escaped from a Japanese war camp in Hong Kong and trekked across hard terrain to Chongqing, the Chinese wartime capital, after which he was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. But was that really enough to warrant him being labelled one of the ‘Greats’? Thus began a quest to discover more about her father, one that would lead Mary first to his papers, from which she learned about his many heroic achievements, but then to China itself.

The resulting book is both personally insightful and rich in historic detail. The firsthand accounts from John Monro, a man, like many of his generation, entrenched in the day-to-day reality and brutality of war, and yet delighting in the culture and scenery of China, are interwoven with Mary’s own personal narrative, journeying to find ‘Dad and China’, ‘both undiscovered countries … both strangely familiar and impenetrably foreign’.

Through following in his footsteps, Mary comes to realize just how courageous her father was, not just in escaping from the Japanese, but also in the work he did afterwards, such as with the BAAG, helping prisoners and refugees. She also begins to see how much his attitudes and mores have shaped her own, and those of her siblings.

During the course of the book, the questions Mary raises are universal: How much are we shaped by our parents? How far do they inform what we do? How we act? How we behave? For those of us, in particular, who have lost parents at comparatively early ages, young enough that we still saw them just as extensions of ourselves and not as independent people with their own personal narratives, these are important and often haunting questions.

Stranger in My Heart is a beautiful book, historically important, it’s true, but more than that, it’s the story of a woman finding her father years after his death and, in doing so, falling in love with him. And how joyous is that?


Mary Monro’s Stranger in My Heart| Unbound| June 2018 | paperback

Foreword by HRH The Princess Royal

20 per cent of net proceeds will go to the Riding for Disabled Association


See: Mary Monro’s short film of Yao ladies at the Longji rice terraces near Guilin; they only have their hair cut once in their lifetime.

See also: The Silent Enemy: How PTSD Damages Our Soldiers – An infographic aiming to raise awareness about PTSD in the military.


Acknowledgements: This review is published as part of the Stranger in My Heart book blog tour. Many thanks to Anne Cater for arranging it and to the publisher for kindly supplying a book proof. All thoughts and opinions are our own. Quoted text 204, 197 © Mary Monro 2018. Image © The Literary Shed 2018.


Also of interest:‘Only Remembered edited by Michael Morpurgo’; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words‘; ‘We should all be feminists




This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.