We Die Alone

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We Die Alone By David HowarthDuring the Second World War, four Norwegians set sail in a small fishing boat from the Shetlands Islands to the far north of Norway. They’ve been training in Britain to perform acts of sabotage against the Nazis who are occupying their homeland. As they try to make dry land, their arrival comes to the attention of a German gunship and in the ensuing skirmish, only one of their number, Jan Baalsrud, manages to escape. “We Die Alone” is the story of his miraculous and dramatic escape to neutral Sweden which he achieved with the aid of a complex and widespread network of brave and patriotic Norwegians who risked their lives to save one man they had never met before (and some never actually met him at all even though they played important parts in the operation).

Battling against hunger, frostbite, unseen dangers underfoot and the constant threat of being caught by the Germans, it is amazing that Jan Baalsrud survived is ordeal. He suffered snow blindness, lay buried under several feet of snow after an avalanche during which episode he lost the skis which had so far helped his escape, and bravely operated on himself to save himself when gangrene threatened his life and even at his lowest, he did not give up the will to live.

It’s no secret that Jan survived his ordeal; it is made clear from the very beginning of the account that this is the outcome. That’s not to say that the book is not suspenseful; there are so many twists and turns along the way that it’s sometimes difficult to believe it’s true at all. A foreword from Andy McNabb seems entirely appropriate but might serve to put off some readers who don’t normally go for this genre. “We Die Alone” focuses on the human side of the story much more than the military and while I’m fairly certain readers of McNab et al will enjoy this exciting account, it’s predominantly a thought-provoking look at the human spirit and how the brave people of these remote communities shared what little they had and endangered their own lives to help this man who had hardly touched their own quiet lives.

Written in 1955, the narration has a somewhat quaint feel to it and one can’t help feeling that had it been written more recently, it might have had a more sensationalist tendency. Jan Baalsrud is unable to remember much of his ordeal. He spent many days and nights barely conscious in shocking conditions. Therefore the story was put together in a patchwork using accounts from those who helped Jan escape, many of who never met each other. Some facts weren’t known until after the war, some things were learned just months after when the snow thawed and clues were found as to the route Jan took. The effect of this, and the fact that it is a third person narration, makes the narration a little stilted and impersonal but it would have been wrong to present it in the first person if Jan recalls so little.

We Die Alone” is a thrilling and compelling read yet it crosses the genres effortlessly making it a read with wide appeal. Relatively short, the pace is brisk but the level of detail is high and there were no loose threads. Having recently visited the Museum of the Norwegian Resistance in Oslo, I found this a gripping read and would go as far as hailing it as one of the most memorable books I have ever had the pleasure to read.

We Die Alone” by David Howarth
Published by Canongate Books, August 2010
Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a free review copy of the book.

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We Die Alone
by David Howarth

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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