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.
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.
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? And would they have sent in a girl? We’re talking military selection in the 1940s. 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.
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, there’s no discussion, no double-takes. Nothing. Later, as they approach their target, they swear on a tiny Bible to take their lives before interrogation to help the others. They make a suicide pact without the slightest qualm – except for the atheist who has to swear on a child’s toy he’d made for his brother.
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. 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.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.