Have you all heard about Waterstones Book Club? Not the one we run instore (although that is good and more of you should come along…..) but the national one which promotes a group of the best recent publications? We get a new batch every few months and I have to say that the current crop are a bunch of absolute crackers. I have usually read one or two of the list (and try to squeeze a couple more into my busy reading schedule) but I think I am now up to 5 of the dozen on offer and at least two of the remaining seven are tempting me. I have already reviewed Perfect, Shadow of the Crescent Moon and We Need New Names and Bex has talked about Love, Nina but my most recent foray into the list has been BBC journalist Edward Stourton’s look at a little known group of stories from World War 2.
I am not a big reader of modern military history – although I do love a historical novel and setting one in a war-zone wouldn’t put me off – but this book caught my eye. Firstly, the jacket is in a style I love – like the old railway posters from the early to mid C20th – and then this was the story, largely, of the ordinary people caught up in a war. Although some of the stories are those of the servicemen who escaped over the Pyrenees most of them focus on the civilian men and women who risked their freedom, their families and their lives to help them.
The escapes described sound like the stuff of movies – and they are not without the odd flash of humour – full of excitement and derring-do but we also see the bleak side. The treatment of Jews, and foreign Jews in particular, in Vichy France does not make for pleasant reading – I was, possibly naively, astounded to realise that a town in southern France which a friend has recommended as a fantastic holiday resort was previously the site of a concentration camp. And it was not an isolated occurrence either as camps were dotted around widely: some designed to restrain troublesome citizens and some as staging posts for the better known camps in Germany and Poland.
On the whole though this is an uplifting read. Although there were some traitors, a few mountain guides who were less than entirely honest and not all the escapees made it across alive most of the tales have good endings. We even see interviews with survivors and their families and the framework of the book is based around a trek, which takes place each year, along one of the escape routes to Spain. If you enjoy the history of real people or have any interest at all in WW2 then this could be a good book for you.