Wednesday, April 14, 2010
"We Die Alone" by David Howarth
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.
***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century reading challenge.