I don’t know where I expected this book to go but this was NOT it.
Behind Enemy Lines: World War II, Sam Frederiksen, Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1944, Carol Matas, 2012.
I think the entire reason I had no idea what was coming was because the back cover blurb on this book is terrible. Just terrible! Our fearless hero Sam has his plane shot down, and in his effort to get back to England he works with the French Resistance. It does not go well to say the absolute least.
The other thing that’s strange about this series is that some of them are more diary-style (numbered entries, text like “I don’t know what to write” or things like that) and some of them, like this one, are just straight first-person recounting that happen to have a date at the beginning of the chapter to orient the reader. Neither one is better, it’s just a little bit odd for me, the reader. (Or possibly it doesn’t bother normal people and it just bothers me, the reader reading these things for detail and comparing and contrasting them to other books in the same and sibling series.)
Anyway, Sam is our Canadian-born-of-Danish-extraction protagonist, who grew up in Manitoba with his doctor father, mother, and younger sister. Things are not going well for him when the book opens as his plane is in the process of being shot down somewhere over France, but Sam survives and manages to hook up with his navigator, Bill, who has a broken leg. He ends up carrying Bill quite a good ways before they’re discovered by a French teenager (which by itself sounds awful), who brings them some food and shows them to a safe Resistance house not too far away.
En route, Sam is stopped by an American who is convinced he’s a German spy and wants to shoot him, but he manages to convince the guy that no, he doesn’t know jack about the Yankees because he’s Canadian, but he will happily tell him all kinds of hockey nonsense, and seals the deal by telling him who won the Grey Cup the previous year. For you non-Canadians reading this, the Grey Cup is the Canadian Football League championship, and it’s a pretty effective spy-discovery tool because it doesn’t matter if it’s 1944 or 2017: nobody gives a shit about the Grey Cup.
My digressions aside, Sam is taken to a barn to stay and wait for help and to give a hand to the Resistance activities in the area while Bill is safe somewhere getting his leg fixed up. He helps to build some explosives and blow up a train, and befriends some of the fighters who are going around the countryside with him. One of them, John, is part of the Jewish Resistance, telling Sam all about what Hitler has been doing to the Jews, and says point-blank that Canada is partly to blame since they refused to take in a whole load of Jewish children with visas and everything. Sam flatly denies this, but it’s true, but what’s more important (to me, in this review) is that this is a direct call-back to Carol Matas’s Dear Canada book Turned Away, which is about a Jewish girl in Winnipeg who is trying to get her beloved cousin out of France before it’s too late. This has nothing to do with that, I just love it when there are details like that.
Anyway, Sam is moved from house to house and has to ditch all his RCAF identification, and they’re sent first to Versailles and then into Paris. Sam is sent to a safehouse where, of all people, he meets up with his best friend Max, who broke his ankle in the crash but has been grubbing along OK since then. Max is Jewish, so he’s far more concerned about getting caught, but that doesn’t seem to bother them since they have an hour-long discussion about who has better food, Danes or Jews. And look, far be it from me to disparage Danish cooking, but I don’t think you can eke an hour’s worth of conversation out of that when Jews have graciously given the world bagels, Montreal smoked meat, challah, and kugel, while the Danes have given the world open-faced sandwiches and a variety of preparations for little fishes. Anyway. Also, Sam defends this with “Danish meatballs!” and you will not find anyone who loves ground meat more than I do, but those are just meatballs.
OK, moving on. Unfortunately, both men get turned in by a traitor who sends them directly to the Gestapo, which is where things begin to go downhill. And do they ever. They’re beaten and sent to isolation chambers, but they can communicate by shouting through the vents, and Sam can hear Max and they’re both fine, but not super thrilled about this turn of events. Sam gets so bored that he tries to name all the body parts he can think of, and then every player on every NHL team, and that’s just the first day. He’s there forty-four days, by which point he’s listed everything he can think of, including every girl he’s met in the last three years and scoring their traits. They’re all shuffled out to meet a bunch of SS guards and loaded onto a train.
According to the Geneva Convention, as POWs they ought to be taken to a POW camp—but the Gestapo are claiming that because they worked with the Resistance they’re now enemy fighters and deserve no such treatment. So they’re loaded into cattle cars for a trip that takes days, and at one point they figure out that the boards in the bottom are loose and they can pry them up. So men start dropping out of the bottom when the train is going very slowly—one at a time, of course. Max is the last one to go, because he’s terrified of what the Nazis will do to him, and then just as he drops the Nazis figure it out and beat the rest of them badly. But Max is—hopefully—gotten away safe.
The train is stopped and they’re all stripped and forced to get back in, and one teenager is shot for trying to escape—as a warning to the others, of course. They eventually arrive at Buchenwald, where they’re shaved and disinfected and despite their claims, labelled as terrorists and refused any POW acknowledgment. The Canadians are lumped together—twenty-six of them—and told not to do anything crazy. The Americans fly bombing missions with some regularity, which means the camp is also regularly in a shambles.
A group of Danish police officers are brought to the camp as well, but they bring Red Cross packages with them, giving them at least the most minor of comforts (antiseptics! Wow!), and it isn’t too long after that when the Canadians are packed off onto another train and guarded by Luftwaffe officers. Another few days of travel and—oh Lord—they finally make it to a real POW camp. Sam is in absolute ecstasy over a lukewarm shower, warm clothes, and his own boots back (“Now that was organization!”). He’s amazed to see how well the prisoners there are doing—“As we walked I saw men playing football!…They were smoking! They had full heads of hair! Some even had moustaches!” They even give Sam the opportunity to write a letter home, and he writes to his parents and sister to tell them he’s OK and just desperately wants to come home. Also, the letter has five lines and he takes up one of them listing all the food he wants to eat. For real.
Anyway, in the epilogue Sam is kept in the camp until January 1945, when they’re forced to march away (where? Not explained!) and doesn’t make it back to England until May 1945. But he is alive! When he returns to Canada he finds so many people disbelieve his story that he spent time in a concentration camp that he just quits telling people. But he does marry and have children, and although his friend Max lives and returns home to Montreal, they stay friends.
Rating: B. Hmm. This is a very interesting story—I was totally surprised by all the twists and turns and did not at all see them coming. And I had no idea Canadian airmen were sent to concentration camps! So I did learn something. And the writing is good and engaging and interesting and even slightly funny in places without being a comedy book about Nazis, which is always great. But it’s not the world’s most thrilling book, I have to say, and the pacing was a bit uneven—it felt like there was a disproportionate amount of time spent roaming around with the Resistance—and it did all wrap up fairly easily and neatly when they got to the POW camp. So was it bad? No, not by a long shot. But I don’t know if I’d give it an A rating, either.