The Winter War: A Novel, by William Durbin
In this novel William Durbin, a writer who specializes in biographies of golfers like Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods and in adventure novels geared to teen and young adult readers, writes a gripping story about the Finnish struggle against Soviet Russia in the Winter War of 1939-1940, in which the Finns managed to demonstrate their resolve and preserve their freedom, at the cost of tens of thousands of war dead and the loss of a significant portion of their territory in Karelia near St. Petersburg. In choosing as its hero a boy named Marko striving to prove himself after suffering from polio, who loses his best friend in a bombing run at the beginning of the war and finds a new best friend in the grumpy Karl Kangas, a soldier with some secrets, and Marko’s status as a newcomer unfamiliar with the progress of the war allows for the questions to be answered for the reader as well, an effective way at providing information without leaving too much to less interesting narration. It is an effective choice given the obscure subject material chosen as material, given that the Winter War is one of the least-known aspects of World War II history .
In terms of its story, the book is pretty straightforward and easy to read. Marko is a young student who, despite his gimp has a great deal of courage and patriotism for his country, and so when given the chance he volunteers as a messenger boy for a front-line regiment not too far from his small town, where heavily outnumbered Finnish troops, despite a lack of supplies, manage to hold off much larger numbers of Soviet troops led by unimaginative leaders and kept in line by political officers who shoot them from the back if they try to retreat. Most of the battle focuses on the boredom of warfare, the nerves taught with intermittent shelling and the omnipresent threat of attack punctuated by moments of high drama and violence, along with moments where one attempts normal behaviors, like going to the sauna. The end result is a novel that both tells historical truth through well-drawn characters but also manages to demonstrate the darker side of heroism, and the reality of imperial domination from nations like the Soviet Union, and manages to give a fair amount of criticism to nations like the United States for showing a willingness to sell equipment to Stalin and not sufficiently support a brave little nation like Finland.
At 200 pages, the novel is not a long one, but it ends a bit abruptly, with a cease-fire being declared and some injuries happening just when peace seems likely, bracketing the main action of the novel with a death and a near-death experience at the beginning and end of the novel. After the main action of the novel, the author adds some historical commentary to explain to the reader that the events of this novel are based on history, given the fact that most of the American readers of the novel will likely be unfamiliar with the history of Scandinavia during World War II, nor necessarily understand the reason why Sweden and Finland were expected to get along so well, or why Finland expected Sweden’s help even though it was a neutral during World War II. Also of interest to many readers will be the fact that Finland’s brave stand against Soviet Russia helped convince Hitler that the Soviet Union had been fatally weakened by purges and thus was ripe for the attack, which was a major influence in his decision to invade the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.
 As might be expected, I have read a great deal of obscure World War Ii material. See, for example: