We Die Alone: Book Review

Cold is something one doesn’t forget. Cold burns with slow patience, settling into your bones quietly, but persistently. The coldest I’ve ever been was living in a huge house in Shorewood, WI, a few blocks up from Lake Michigan. For a few months I lived there with a group of eccentric college classmates who had passions for pizza, cooking, and saving money. It was a snowy winter that year and although the old house would have still been drafty had the heat been turned on full blast, the temp was kept at arctic temperatures–as least, that’s what it felt like to me. At work and out and about I seemed like a normal person dressed in winter wear. In the house, I became an abominable snowman. Never ever ever, do I want to be that cold again.

Since that time, I have found it fun to occasionally read about the trials and adventures of those others who must venture into cold temperatures. Once such book that riveted me was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It is about a climb of Mt. Everest that ended in disaster for many of the climbers. Another great one is In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides that tells the tragic story of the Jeannette expedition to the Arctic.

This past month I have read another great story to add to the ice-encrusted list: We Die Alone by David Howarth. Not only is it an amazing tale of survival under the coldest of circumstances, but is a another of the great stories coming out of the WW2 era. During the war, a group of Norwegians based in the Shetland islands were commissioned to go help with the Norwegian resistance against the Nazis occupying Norway. A fated voyage, the trip was not a success, save as an amazing story of one man surviving against incredible odds with the aid of hardy, dedicated locals.

Set in the world of fjords in winter, this story had me hooked right away. I am half Norwegian (5th generation immigrants to America), but don’t have a lot of connection with that heritage, except through religion. My family are diehard Lutherans and probably consider ourselves more Minnesotans than Norwegians most of the time, so it’s fun to delve into Norwegian history and culture sometimes. Stories like this help explain part of that stoic, unemotional Scandinavian spirit. Living in that area of the world (at least at that time), if you dissolved into tears and despair, you would die. You had to keep your wits about you and possess bottomless persistence to beat all of that cold and climbing and avalanches, and who knows what else.

Jan Baalsrud is one of those men I’m not even sure they make anymore. How he went from one calamity to the next, cheerfully and determinedly, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand. If the environment wasn’t to do him in, the Nazis certainly would have, had he been caught. The same risks were taken by all of those who helped him, especially Marius from Lyngenfjord and those from Mandal.

There’s really only one woman of note in the story, and I can only wish I had her strength and stamina to withstand the cold and climbing up a thousand feet to be moral support for Marius, the man she loved. People have a different perspective and different abilities, too, growing up skiing on snow and ice. In Minnesota, though we have the cold, our skiing is mostly on the water in the summer, and though we are all hardy in our way due to the crazy winters we often have, these people were and likely still are in a league of their own.

The best parts of We Die Alone are the bits just talking about the culture, the culture of northern Norway and Scandinavia, the culture of the war and occupation, the environment and climate of the place–all of these things add depth to an already heart-stopping tale. The best part is that the story is true and a testament that life continues on even after the toughest of experiences.

This book made me cold just reading it, so I recommend a warm fire and a cup of hot cocoa if possible while devouring the tale.

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