Book Review: We Die Alone

They say truth is stranger than fiction. I would tend to agree – especially in regards to the story of Jan Baalsrud, a story brilliantly recorded by David Howarth in We Die Alone.

In March of 1943, a skilled team of expatriate Norwegian commandos set sail from northern England. Their destination was Nazi-occupied Norway; their mission was to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance. Shortly after landfall, however, they were betrayed, resulting in an ambush by the Nazis that left only one of the team alive – Jan Baalsrud.

Pursued by Germans, suffering from severe frostbite, and blinded by the unrelenting snow and wind, Jan forced himself onward, leaving a trail of blood behind him as he went. He eventually found his way to a small arctic village, where he sought shelter, half-dead, delirious, and virtually a cripple. At great risk to themselves and their families, the villagers undertook to save him… and through impossible feats, they did.

David Howarth won my utmost respect with his marvelous book The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story. It blew me away completely. He blew me away a second time with We Die Alone, which has to be one of the most riveting survival stories I have ever read.

I mentioned that truth is stranger than fiction, particularly in the case of Jan’s story. Why? Because if Howarth’s book were a novel, I would probably shrug off the James Bond-like exploits of its hero as pure nonsense. But this is not a novel. It is a meticulously researched piece of history. Says Howarth in the preface,

I heard the bare bones of this story during the war, soon after it happened… All that I knew about it then was based on a report which was written in a Swedish hospital by a man called Jan Baalsrud… it was not until ten years later that I had a chance to talk it over with him, and persuade him to come with me to the far north of Norway where it happened, to try to find out the whole truth of it.

Now that I have found it and written it down, I am rather afraid of being accused of exaggeration. Parts of it are difficult to believe. But I have seen nearly all the places which are mentioned in this book, and met nearly all the people. Not one of the people knew the whole story, but each of them had a most vivid recollection of his own part in it. Each of their individual stories fit together, and also confirm what Baalsrud himself remembered. Some minor events are matters of deduction, but none of it is imaginary. Here and there I have altered a name or an unimportant detail to avoid offending people; but otherwise, I am convinced that this account is true.

By the end of the book, the reader is convinced, too, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And while one could argue that the book’s primary focus is Jan, Howarth never neglects the bravery of the villagers who aided him. To quote Steven Ambrose, who provides the introduction, “[They] ceaselessly risked their lives to save his, even when he was apparently a hopeless cripple with nothing whatsoever to offer anyone, and managed impossible-to-believe feats in keeping him alive.” Their boldness and sacrifice truly is one of the most touching elements of the story.

By all means, read this book. If you do not read another survival story this year, read this book. As a reviewer for the New York Times wrote, “We Die Alone fills one with humble admiration for the stubborn courage of a man who refused to die.”

15 thoughts on “Book Review: We Die Alone”

  1. You know, Ink, I really appreciate your book reviews.

    Believe it or not, I love to read War novels — my father, a Vietnam veteran, read so many of them, particularly about WWII. Growing up I watched him devour them!

    It’s also wonderful to see how you can appreciate the common grace that is bestowed on (1) the author (2) the subjects — as it is a true story. I have met far too many evangelical Christians who shy away from things that are not “spiritual” or “Christian” and they end up cutting themselves off from a blessing. That is one of the things that I love about Reformed Theology — it encompasses the whole of our existence and it teaches the Christian not to be afraid of the world but rather to engage it — with the Truth! Jesus never promised to take us out of the world — only he said that we were not OF the world! I’m going off on a tangent now!!! : ) Ahhhh…..forgive me!

    Anyway, great job and keep up the good work! You are a great encouragement!

  2. Sounds like a great book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I just bought a similar book, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, about a small town in southern France that saved Jews from annihilation during WWII. Looking forward to reading it and then getting my hands on We Die Alone.

  3. That sounds really good, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the review, it drew my interest at least.

  4. I agree with Amy that you would probably like Unbroken if you haven’t already read it. And I am going to add this book to my TBR list and hope to get to it before I die.

  5. Thank you for the post. I’ve never read “WE DIE ALONE”, but it sounds like a
    book I would be interested in. I’ll have to check it out.

  6. Reading We Die Alone at the moment. Loving it. Just today I was cruising the Lingham Alps area on Google streetview, which gives a hint of the environment.

  7. In seventh Grade English class our teacher read this book to us. Over several weeks we listened intently to this harrowing story. This was in 1963. I have never forgotten this book. I purchased it many years ago and have made a second purchase recently for my grandson. He is only in 4th grade but I know he will love it as much as I did. I intend to read it nightly, just as our teacher did daily. I was sick at heart when the book was finished. I am now 63 and though I’ve read many books over the years, this one book still stands out in my mind .

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