We Die Alone by David Howarth
|We Die Alone by David Howarth|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A superlative real-life story, of a near-death experience or three for a soldier trapped in enemy territory. Chilling.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: August 2010|
|Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd|
Consider taking a five day sail in a small fishing boat the height of the North Sea from Shetland, to try and establish, train and supply some potentially vital anti-German resistance in the far, far north of occupied Norway, your homeland. Imagine the sight of heavy naval parades where you intended to land, as galling proof that your intel is ages out of date. Ponder too the fact that you get reported to the Nazis due to the most ridiculous slight of fortune. All your colleagues are dead or captured, your equipment blown up with your trawler to keep it safe from Jerry hands, half your big toe has been shot off, and you're forced to go on the run in one of Europe's last, and coldest, wildernesses. And you have no idea whatsoever quite how bad this scenario is going to get.
The deliberate mistake in the above is to suggest than the man to whom all this happened, in the spring of 1943, ever had any time to pause and consider his future. But Jan Baalstrud probably didn't. Needing help - warmth, food, medical aid among other kinds - he had to flit from one haven to another, always leaving behind people who could be tortured or worse for collaboration. And that's nothing as to what befell him en route to the hallowed ground of officially aborting the mission from neutral Sweden.
His story is shattering, grisly, remarkable. It has some scenes of dreamlike surreality - Jan skiing through two score German soldiers one morning. It also has what for many would be a living hell, if cold, incapacitation and helplessness are anything to start with.
And with the narration of this story, based on some first class journalism, we can picture Jan in all his torment. We're there when people surprise him with their generosity time after time, when he braves the arctic conditions once more, and especially when... well, take your pick from three or more unearthly scenes.
This book is everything it could be. A study of the psychology of survival that will grip anyone, a snapshot of history and geography most likely unknown to us, and most importantly, one of the most dramatic true-life stories you would care to wish for. Sometimes it proves itself a product of 1955 when it was first published - some comments about the Lapps would not survive the editor's red pen in 2010.
This volume cries out for a map or two, but I couldn't bear to use that as the solitary reason to mark it down at all. It will I am sure churn the emotions, and stay in the minds, of all who read it. The words are as captivating as the photos of the locations are themselves boggling, and Jan's story is one wartime biography I urge you to read. You might not think it your kind of book - trust me, it is.
I must thank the kind Canongate people for my review copy.
For a more regular travel book set in the frozen north, we recommend The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic by Sara Wheeler. It goes without saying that Jan did not see a copy of Serious Survival: How to Poo in the Arctic and Other Essential Tips for Explorers by Marshall Corwin, but could probably teach its authors a thing or two.
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