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We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance Paperback – June 1, 2007
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If this story of espionage and survival were a novel, readers might dismiss the Shackleton-like exploits of its hero as too fantastic to be taken seriously. But respected historian David Howarth confirmed the details of Jan Baalsrud's riveting tale. It begins in the spring of 1943, with Norway occupied by the Nazis and the Allies desperate to open the northern sea lanes to Russia. Baalsrud and three compatriots plan to smuggle themselves into their homeland by boat, spend the summer recruiting and training resistance fighters, and launch a surprise attack on a German air base. But he's betrayed shortly after landfall, and a quick fight leaves Baalsrud alone and trapped on a freezing island above the Arctic Circle. He's poorly clothed (one foot is entirely bare), has a head start of only a few hundred yards on his Nazi pursuers, and leaves a trail of blood as he crosses the snow. How he avoids capture and ultimately escapes--revealing that much spoils nothing in this white-knuckle narrative--is astonishing stuff. Baalsrud's feats make the travails in Jon Krakauer's Mt. Everest classic Into Thin Air look like child's play. In an introduction, Stephen Ambrose calls We Die Alone a rare reading experience: "a book that I absolutely cannot put down until I've finished it and one that I can never forget." This amazing book will disappoint no one. --John J. Miller --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Library Journal
This 1955 volume is one of the most remarkable survival stories ever written. Jan Baalsrud was the only survivor of a Norwegian commando team ambushed by the Nazis during World War II. Wounded and with the Germans in pursuit, Baalsrud escaped and miraculously fought his way through the Norwegian tundra to a distant village, where he was saved by locals who helped spirit him to Sweden. Baalsrud suffered frostbite and snowblindness, came through an avalanche, and lived to tell the tale. This edition has a new introduction by Citizen Soldiers' author Stephen Ambrose.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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It's about Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian. He begins WWII as a courier between Stockholm and Oslo, gets caught by the Swedes, imprisoned, and then manages to make his way to England and join a group of other Norwegians being trained to return to their country and fight the Nazis. That's where the book begins, with Jan and the other men on his mission approaching the Norwegian coast. Their plan is to hide their sabotage gear, train local groups to resist the Nazis, and then attack a German airfield that's wrecking havoc on convoys between England and the Soviet Union. But their plans fall apart pretty quickly, and Jan soon finds himself alone in the snow with nothing but his clothing, his pistol, and one boot. What follows is how he survives and eventually makes it back to Sweden, with a lot of help along the way.
I was initially interested in this book because of its title. I like titles with the words like "death" or "die" or "dead" in them. But the title isn't entirely accurate: Jan doesn't die (comes close several times). And the people who do die don't die alone--there's usually at least a gestapo agent around.
But enough about the title. Jan is brave and resourceful and he can ski like something else. But then events leave him gradually more and more at the mercy of others, and the tough commando becomes vulnerable. Howarth did a wonderful job of finding an amazing story, researching it thoroughly, and then writing it in a way that uses good principles of storytelling so that this true story reads like a novel.
We Die Alone is one of those books I recommend for just about everyone. Readers that enjoy Unbroken or The Long Walk may be especially interested in adding this to their to-read list.
That said, a few thoughts:
1. I found the actions of the local Norwegian "Resistance Movement" almost more interesting than the actual tale. To be caught helping Baalsrud was an act the occupying Nazis would have punished severely, both the actual person that did it, his family and maybe even the whole village. And yet the local villagers were, for the most part, not intimidated. The bigger concern seemed to be that if too many people found out about the rescue effort, their attempts to help would be noticed by the Nazi occupiers and raise suspicions.
2. Even more amazing, people in the next village were recruited based just on a request from a respected member of the first village. All this, without the use of a telephone, which was probably tapped by the Germans. Imagine your reaction if someone you don't know showed up at your door and said that so-and-so from the next town over wants you to climb a mountain in a blizzard and rescue someone...nevermind that the Germans will kill you and your family if you get caught...just do it.
3. Baalsrud spends several weeks in a snow cave on the Norwegian "Outback", sometimes completely buried, with very limited supplies of food, fresh water, blankets or medical supplies. I am not sure I believe this is even possible, but yet the author seems to have done a credible job of researching the story. There are multiple sources for research material, and a credible looking timeline. Either Baalsrud is capable of hibernating, or memories have been corrupted in the ten years between the events and the story being told. I would believe either scenario.
4. As many have pointed out, the editing and proofreading on this book were horrible. These sorts of errors ruin my reading experience, and most times I would abandon reading a book with this level of problems. In this instance, the story was captivating enough that I powered through the mistakes. The story was better than the proofreading was bad.
5. The Kindle edition did not have a map-something sorely needed. Even Google-maps seemed unable to rise to the task for some of the locations mentioned in the story. An old Atlas that I hadn't used in years, showing topography and little hamlets of Norway, greatly enhanced the story.
So find a good map, ignore the grammar and writing style, and start reading. You might have to suspend disbelief at some of the details, but no doubt the major points of the story are true. If nothing else, the tale of Jan Baalsrud and the Norwegian villagers will reaffirm your faith in the human will and spirit.
Finally, since the characters in the story seemed to run on brandy, pour yourself a glass and toast these men and women...preferably on a cold, windy winter evening.