Style: Weak → Average
Attitude: Some Care Needed → Fairly Positive
In Brief: Disappointing. An awkward mixture of kids' caper and wartime resistance story. Courage and heroism in extreme physical conditions. Highly credible Scandinavian setting. Less credible characterisations. Tacit acceptance of suicide.
Published in: 2010
Age Range: Young Teens
Setting: Scotland & Norway
- Åse Jeffries is a petite 14-year-old. An excellent gymnast, she is the only girl on the mission and is chosen for her size and agility.
- Frederick Hauker is a 14-year-old boy boffin with an encyclopaedic memory and recall. When his dislocated shoulder slows the others down, he first tries to take his own life to avoid being a burden, then carries on in spite of the pain.
- Jakob Stromsheim is the 15-year-old team leader, chosen for his levelheadedness and ability to bring a group together.
- Lars Petersen has escaped from Norway after being brutally interrogated by the Gestapo without giving away any details of the local resistance movement.
Four youngsters are sent into wartime Norway to destroy a Nazi heavy water plant, preventing the Germans from developing nuclear weaponry. Parachuted into a desolate and remote part of Norway in midwinter they have to survive with little shelter in blizzard conditions before entering the plant, detonating explosives, and escaping to Sweden 400km away.
Imagine one of those old-time war films, for example Heroes of Telemark, where a courageous force of local resistance saboteurs has to break in and destroy an enemy installation after a British Commando unit has failed. They have to make an agonising moral decision when they realise that blowing up the target will result in the deaths of innocent civilans. Now imagine one of those Enid Blyton stories where a group of youngsters chance upon a group of baddies with a master plan for world domination. The plucky kids have to foil the bad guys and then get away. Now imagine an awkward fusion of those two stories where the plucky kids are sent in once the Commandos have failed but for no apparent reason. And they don't have any moral decisions to make except when to pop the suicide pills which they've nobly accepted from their training officer.
The author — a British journalist — has clearly done her homework. She acknowledges assistance from all manner of people for helping her to set the Scandinavian scene. There are references to SOE training and survival techniques, Norwegian and Swedish geography and culture, ways to track the fauna of the Scandinavian forests by their tracks in the snow, and the setup of shelter huts in the high Norwegian mountains. Plus explanations of Heavy Water, the dangers of frostbite, and the nature of collaborators in wartime Norway. Wherever else the book fails, it doesn't fail in its educational value. It even has pull-out facsimiles of the training guides the children receive. Nor does it fail in the apparent authenticity of its setting. I've never been to Scandinavia but the geography and climate feel persuasive to me.
But the story does fall down crucially in the one point which matters: why are the children sent at all? That is: why not a different group of soldiers? Or a group of youngster from the local resistance with more motivation to succeed? There are vague murmurings about their size helping them to sneak into the installation they are to sabotage. Or their youth making them less likely to appear suspicious. And yet surely some smaller adults might serve the first purpose. And since boys as young as Lars are already known by the Gestapo to be helping the Norwegian resistance, they're hardly likely to be fooled by the children's youthfulness. In fact, why did the author not simply have all the children be somehow connected to the resistance? Lars is far and away the most credible character and actually has the motivation to succeed. The others — from Norwegian families who live elsewhere — have only a distant sense of patriotism or family honour to direct them.
Does it matter? I think it does. A war story, especially one based on a real raid, demands an authenticity which the less serious Famous Five story can work without. It's quite certain that there were young people such as Lars involved in the resistance in many countries, just as the young people of Germany were forced into the Hitler Youth. In wartime, people have to grow up and have responsibility thrust upon them in a way which would not happen in other circumstances. This would be a great premise for a gripping wartime adventure. The youngsters would have the motivation to succeed and to get out alive. Instead we have British Intelligence parachuting in as saboteurs a group of schoolchildren with little motivation and no other qualification than that of being young, intelligent, agile and Norwegian?
And would they have sent in a girl at all? We're talking military selection in the 1940s. Åse brings (small) size and gymnastic ability to the team but is that enough to overcome the practical difficulties of sending an adolescent girl on a mission like this in which she will be living in conditions of some intimacy with several boys of her age? I'm thankful to say that the story never goes there, but in a certain sense it should have done so, if only to face up to the difficulties involved. And we're talking about the 1940s. Like it or not, it seems highly unlikely that a male-dominated mission control would have selected a girl for this mission no matter how good her gymnastic credentials.
The whole thing reveals a 21st-century mindset in 20th-century clothing. The opening pages show facsimiles of communications between the British Prime Minister and his Chief of Combined Forces discussing the training of “a group of young teenagers”. The word teenagers is generally considered to have been coined some time in the 1950s at the earliest and certainly wouldn't have been used in such a communication. A careless 21st-centuryism reducing the story's credibility from the outset.
Each of the children has individual attributes, carefully laid out in the opening pages: Jakob, the Leader; Åse, the small Gymnast; Freddy the Boff; Lars, the Local. But the only character I find wholly convincing is Lars, the young Norwegian who had fled Norway after surviving a brutal Nazi interrogation. His story is credible and moving, and the more poignant for casting some light on the fate of Jakob's father, missing in action. The others, for all their stated characteristics, are ciphers. As they alternate writing the mission journal, I can't even make out who's writing until some giveaway phrase emerges.
And then there are the suicide pills. The story opens as the children arrive for training in an offbeat off-the-track Scottish manor. There's a gruff-but-kind Colonel who puts them through their paces, including a mock kidnap and interrogation. And a kindly Blytonesque Cook who makes sure they get fed. And then, as they're about to go, the Colonel hands out suicide pills as though they were false moustaches. “Keep this pill about your person at all times... You never know when you might need it.” Aside from a throwaway line about life being cheap (the box the pill is in is made from Hallmarked silver) there's no discussion, no double-takes. Nothing. Later, as they approach their target, they swear on Åse's tiny Bible to take their lives before interrogation to help the others. They make a suicide pact without the slightest qualm — except for Freddy because he's an atheist so he has to swear on a child's toy he'd made for his brother. And what if they were caught alive? The Germans must already know about plans to attack the plant because a previous attempt has failed. There's nothing the children could reveal under interrogation which would be remotely close to justifying suicide even to them. And they're youngsters with everything to live for. Unbelievable.
Later on as they escape, Freddy has dislocated his shoulder and is a burden to the others. He makes a half-hearted attempt to take his own life to help the others by inhaling chloroform but he fails and the others find him and carry him along. Eventually the group splits and Jakob and Lars head off alone to Sweden leaving Åse and Freddy to follow more slowly. This attempted suicide has a little more nuance about it: the others are at least alarmed when it's clear what Freddy has done, and the team makes decisions which take them forward without sacrificing Freddy.
I've been quite harsh with this book principally because I see it as a wasted opportunity. A wartime setting offers many opportunities for young people to shine, to rise above self-centredness and indolence to take on adult responsibilities and to face up to difficult decisions. I'd hoped that it would be a cut above the likes of Cherub, Hive, Spy High, Alex Rider and the other Spy Kids stories which fill the shelves today. But it seems to me that this story squanders its promising setup and settles for mediocrity in addition to an alarming acceptance of suicide. There are good points about the characters and the decisions they make: they stick together, they support one another, they succeed in their mission. But there could have been so much more.
- Could young teenagers have done this in reality?
- How hard is it to make nuclear weapons nowadays?
- Do we ever have the right to take our own lives.
Tuesday 6th April 2010