Book Review: We Die Alone

We Die Alone: A WWII Epic Of Escape And Endurance, by David Howarth, Introduction by Stephen E. Ambrose

Upon reading this book, one of the first thoughts that goes through my mind is that this would make a great WWII movie [1] of survival and endurance. Lo and behold, when I looked it up, it had been made into a movie called Ni Liv in its native Norwegian, or Nine Lives in English, that it had been entered into Cannes and been nominated for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and that it had been declared by Norwegian television audiences as the best Norwegian film ever made in 1991 [2]. Given that few Norwegian films ever make it on my radar, it is perhaps not surprising that I had never heard of a movie that was released only a few months after my mother was born, but for a film to remain in the consciousness of its own intended and original audience suggests that the film did well by the book, because the book is cinematic in quality and tells a deeply harrowing tale of one man’s struggle to survive a compromised mission, and the fact that his survival depended on a great deal of help from patriotic Norwegians who helped him when he could not help himself.

The book itself is told in a gripping series of short chapters that begins with a story of a crew of twelve Norwegians posing as fishermen in an attempt to get close enough to a German airfield to sabotage its air control tower. By terrible luck, as they land they came across a tradesman who betrayed them to the Germans, which brought on a disaster that left eleven of the twelve men dead, some of them immediately, some of them after considerable torture by the Gestapo. After that, the fortune for the lone survivor of the mission got much better, as he made his way through an improbable set of circumstances, which included accidentally starting an avalanche while hobbling about snowblind, surviving weeks left in a snowdrift on a cold plateau, amputating nine of his own toes with an ordinary knife, and eventually being brought into Sweden by a Lapp reindeer herder, only to immediately rejoin the resistance upon healing up. Part of his good fortunate was in the fact that most of his hiding places were not very popular with tourists or German soldiers [3], but there is no doubt that his survival was a providential matter, even if he himself was not a particularly religious man.

While it would be spoiling the adventure of this story to discuss in detail how Jan Ballsrud, the lone survivor of his commando mission, was saved from the Germans so that they did not even know the torturous path he took to freedom and from any other number of unpleasant ways to die in rural northern Norway, it is worthwhile to note that his ending, at least insofar as this book is concerned, was a happy one. As the author closes the main portion of this book: “As for Jan, he got his own way in the end and was sent over again to Norway as an agent, sailing once more from the base in the Shetland Islands. So it happened that he was on active service there when the capitulation came. In the midst of the national rejoicing and the hectic work of accepting the surrender of the Germans, he picked up the telephone and asked for his father’s number, and heard at last that his family was safe and well. When he was free to go to Oslo and meet them, his schoolgirl sister, Bitten, for whom he had worried so long, astonished him by being twenty and having grown up very well, as he saw at a glance, without the benefit of his brotherly hand to guide her. Jan is a married man now. Hi[s] wife Evie is American. Jan and his father work again, importing mathematical and surveying instruments from abroad. To meet Jan, absorbed in his theodolites and his family affairs, in his house in the pinewoods in the outskirts of Oslo [4], you would never guess the story which he remembers. But you would see for yourself that it has a happy ending.” As well it should.

Aside from its happy ending, though, this book is immensely worthwhile for the way in which it portrays a man’s struggle to survive despite crippling injury, despite blindness, despite his unfamiliarity with the terrain he was trying to escape, and despite the fact that he was a wanted man by the German occupiers of his beloved country, and even despite the fact that he struggled throughout his journey with nightmares, hallucination, and even the occasional moments of suicidal gloom, as might be expected for someone under that sort of prolonged and intense distress. The happy ending is well-earned and well-deserved. Likewise, this book is a telling reminder of the way that an occupied country still found a way to recover something of their dignity and self-respect by helping Jan escape, a task that involved a great deal of cooperation between people involved in various parts of their patriotic resistance organization, and a good deal of ingenious working through the massive logistical problems involved with feeding and transporting an invalid in an occupied country in an atmosphere of immense suspicion and scarcity. Indeed, this book, in both its providence and its bad luck, is a vivid tale about the difficulty and importance of trust in the worst of circumstances.

[1] See also:


[3] See, for example, the following quote:

“At that time, in 1943, that remote and thinly populated coast had suddenly had world-wide importance thrust upon it. Normally, in time of peace, there is no more peaceful place than the far north of Norway. For two months every summer there is a tourist season, when foreigners come to see the mountains and the Lapps and the midnight sun; but for the other ten months of the year, the people who live here eke out a humble livelihood by fishing and working small farms along the water’s edge. They are almost cut off from the world outside, by the sea in front of them and the Swedish frontier at their backs, and by bad weather and darkness, and by the vast distance they have to travel to reach the capital of their own country or any other centre of civilization. They live a hard life, but a very placid one. They are not harassed by many of the worries which beset people in cities or in more populous countrysides. They take little account of time (5).”

[4] Not unlike the life of another great Norwegian:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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13 Responses to Book Review: We Die Alone

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