Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"We Die Alone" by David Howarth

Summary:  During World War II, a group of twelve Norwegians set sail from England under disguise of a fishing boat.  Their goal is to land in German-occupied Norway where they will train local citizens and attempt sabotage on a German base.  When they are betrayed early on, the group is attacked by Germans, and only one man--Jan Baalsrud--manages to get away.  We Die Alone is the true story of Jan's two-month escape to neutral Sweden.  He is aided along the way by individuals, families, and entire villages of Norwegians who risk everything to help one man survive.

Musings: This book was brought to my attention by a New York Times article about Norwegians' Winter Olympic performance ("The Hard and the Soft," David Brooks, 3/1/10).  The book was described there, and in nearly everything I else I read about it, to be a story that seems nearly impossible.  And as many others have said, Jan's journey is so amazing that a movie of the book would seem far-fetched, but it's completely true.

It is an amazing story full of coincidences, chance, close calls, and near-fatal encounters.  But throughout, the resounding feeling is one of human kindness.  Whole towns risked their lives to save Jan--one man--when at any moment German awareness of their actions could mean death.  And, of course, equally amazing is Jan's resolve.  He lives where no person could possibly do so--through being buried, unconscious, in an avalanche while snow blind to surviving for nearly a week without food in a crevice by a rock.  He perseveres through it all and emerges with only the loss of his toes.

This book was published in 1955 by David Howarth, an officer at a navy base from which Jan and his companions sailed.  I loved Howarth's tone throughout the book; I suppose it had a bit of a "quaint" feel to it.  So many stories today are full of sensationalism, but Howarth was determined to focus on the determination of Jan and those who helped him.  In a short chapter Howarth acknowledges what happened to the other members of Jan's crew; those that weren't killed immediately were inhumanely executed, and several others were barbarically tortured.  However, Howarth doesn't go into those grisly details: "The details of these executions are known, but they are not a thing to be written or read about" (67).  Howarth doesn't skim over the truth, even when it's unpleasant, but I appreciated his restraint here.

We Die Alone is a gripping nonfiction read, perfect for people who tend to shy away from the genre thinking it will be boring.  The pace is quick, and I enjoyed the insight into Jan, the people who helped him, and Norwegian life at the time.

On a last note: The cover pictured above is not the cover of the book I read.  I have some annoying dedication to only posting the image of the cover I personally read, but when I picked this book up from the library, I had to laugh at how terribly cheesy the cover was.  I didn't want to use it as the post picture since I was afraid it would turn people off to a great book!  The copy I read appears to be from the original printing (1955), so I don't blame them for what would today be a terrible cover, but I was also shocked by the state of the book.  I love library copies, and most I've borrowed are in great condition, but I have never seen such a dying library book before; I think the yellowing scotch tape and the mystery drink spilled over the inside pages were my favorite part.  I'll be optimistic and say it's worn from many much-loved readings.  Anyway, here's a photo of the copy I read as well (I blocked out the name of the library at bottom). 

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century reading challenge.


  1. Just finished the book. My father recommended it to me. Great book. I expect a redo of the old movie sometime soon...

  2. did not know any one else who had read this, any one who liked this should look up Kabloona another non fiction from the same time in the far north