Friday, April 24, 2015

Resistance by Craig Simpson

Set in Norway in 1943, Resistance tells the story of young Norwegian boy's coming of age during the turmoil of the Nazi occupation of his beloved country.

The novel opens in September 1943, with Marek Olsen and his older brother Olaf on a hunting trip in the Hardanger Plateau, a vast "uninhabitable wasteland freckled with lakes and meandering rivers and streams". Olaf and Marek have grown up in the (fictional) village of Ulfhus on the shores of the Sorfjord where their father is the schoolmaster.

After shooting a reindeer, Marek helps Olaf skin and butcher the deer and they take the meat to their Borsobu - a small hut. On the way they are buzzed by a Luftwaffe plane which fires at them on its second pass. Terrified, Marek pushes Olaf to the ground saving his life as the bullets pass through Olaf's rucksack and into the deer meat.

In their hut, Marek and his brother Olaf eat the reindeer stew, drink potato whisky and smoke an English cigarette. It is Olaf's possession of the forbidden cigarette that makes Marek realize that despite his brother's great intellect, he is a risk-taker. He realizes that Olaf "enjoyed the thrill and revelled in the danger." The two young men talk about their futures; Olaf is planning on studying medicine in Oslo but he worries that the Germans will not allow him to go. Marek likes to fix cars and machinery but his father wants him to study law.

On their way home they meet three men, one of whom is a Norwegian and likely a member of the Norwegian resistance, MILORG. When Marek and Olaf return to Ulfhus, they are shocked to see guards outside the Johanssen's guest house and watch as the Gestapo take their father and Mr. Torstig and the Johanssens away in a truck, their hands bound. Marek and Olaf's mother collapses when she learns of her husband's arrest and Marek is sent to fetch Dr. Haskveld.

Hans Tauber, one of the older Germans stationed in Ulfhus tells Marek not to worry if his father has not done anything "wrong" and that his father has been taken to the police station in Odda. Olaf decides that they must go to Odda to see what can be done about their father. He and his friend Lars decide to steal petrol from Tauber's car while Marek works on repairing the engine of their father's car, nicknamed Josephine.Lars and Olaf steal the gasoline and the three drive to Odda with Marek's mother. At a checkpoint, they encounter a German soldier named Hartwig Lauder who is enamored of their father's French Citroen. Hartwig insists on driving them to Odda and even offers to buy the car from them which Marek refuses. Although Marek wonders about killing the German, he notes that Hartwig seems to be quite a reasonable man. Their trip in Odda is unsuccessful; Marek has an uncomfortable "meeting" with Wolfgang Stretter, a Gestapo while Olaf and his mother learn that father will likely not be released any time soon.

Hans Tauber is sent to the Russian front and a new German is sent to Ulfhus, Lieutenant Klaus Wold, a young soldier intent on making his mark and harassing the women of Ulfhus and surrounding villages. Wold first encounters Agnete Hilting, Olaf's girfriend,  at her seventeenth birthday party and then one night insists she accompany him for a walk. When he sexually assaults Agnete, Olaf tries to intervene but is badly beaten by the German soldiers. Determined to seek revenge and punish Wold, Olaf plans to ambush Wold's car on his weekly trip to Odda. Wold's car is forced off the road but he survives the accident and Olaf shoots him dead. However, an unknown passenger in the car escapes. Dr. Haskveld happens upon the accident and when he is told what happened he advises Olaf and Marek to flee into the wilderness, promising to take care of their mother and get her to safety.

Olaf and Marek ski up to the Hardanger Plateau, intent upon reaching the Johanssen's hut. During their flight into the Hardanger, Olaf reveals to Marek that their father was a messenger for the resistance and that the Johanssens also work with the resistance. They soon become lost in a blizzard and weakened by lack of food and sleep, both Olaf and Marek collapse. They are saved by a man named Jorgen Peterson from Tromso - the same man Marek and Olaf met on the journey home from the Hardanger weeks ago. With Jorgen at the Johanssen's hut, are five other resistance members; Harald Larsson and Leif Brekke who found Marek and Olaf, Ingrid whose husband, a resistance member was shot and two British men, Major Tim Fletcher, an engineer and Sergeant Eddie Turner, a stonemason. Jorgen and the others reluctantly allow the brothers to stay at the hut until they recover and can decide what to do next. With an important, secret mission pending, the resistance wants the brothers to move on because they know the Germans will be looking for them.

Feeling badly about using up the group's food supplies, Marek and Olaf go out on the plateau to hunt reindeer. Their trip is cut short when they are surprised by two German soldiers. Hoping to kill them, Olaf fires his rifle but repeatedly misses and they are only saved when Eddie arrives. Because the Germans managed to contact their base, Jorgen and the others know they must now leave the hut. The group decides to travel to Kinsarvik on their way to Jondal on the coast of the Hardangerfjord. Olaf agrees to guide the group as far as Kinsarvik. Marek and Olaf learn that Jorgen and his group need to get to Jondal to meet up with their men and supplies without taking the Kvanndal ferry across the fjord. They also find out about the "Shetland bus", the nickname for the boat service used by the resistance between Lunna Voe on the Shetland Islands and Bergen, Norway.

When the group reaches Kinsarvik, they split up with Ingrid leaving to visit a friend to find out what the Germans are up to, Leif and Harald reconnoitring the town, and Jorgen, Eddie and Fletcher waiting in the forest. Olaf and Marek now leave the group but have a surprise encounter with Agnete in Kinsarvik. During their talk with Agnete, Marek sights the Gestapo officer, Herr Stretter. They see Ingrid captured by Stretter so Marek runs to tell Jorgen while Olaf attempts to warn Leif and Harald. Jorgen, Fletcher, Eddie and Marek decide to walk through town where they meet up with Olaf who tells them that Leif and Harald have also been arrested. In a strange coincidence, Marek recognizes Hartwig driving a German army truck onto the ferry. Convinced he can get a ride out of Hartwig, Marek approaches him and asks for a lift to Jondal. The ferry takes them across to Utne and Hartwig, not suspecting they are resistance, happily drives Marek, Olaf and their friends to Jondal.

Once in Jondal, the group manages to meet up with the Shetland bus, captained by the crusty Kurt Torvic. Now shorthanded, Jorgen decides to take on Olaf and Marek as members of the resistance and reveals to them their plan to sabotage German submarines in the Atlantic. Unfortunately at the last moment the Marek and Olaf learn the operation has been compromised, setting in motion a chain of events that thrust Marek into a dangerous confrontation with the hated Nazis. Both Marek and what's left of the resistance learn the shocking truth behind their betrayal.


Resistance is an exciting, well written historical adventure filled with thrilling escapes and tragic loss. Resistance vividly portrays in a realistic manner the true nature of war. In this novel,  the cruelty of the Nazi regime, the fear people in occupied countries experienced and how occupation divided the people in nations that were previously united against an aggressor are all . It also portrays the high price many civilians paid to resist tyranny. War is characterized by murder, rape and the imprisonment of people in labour camps where men look "as though there very souls have been stolen."  All of this is portrayed in Resistance, but not in an overly graphic manner.

The main character in the novel is fourteen year old Marek Olsen. Not a child anymore, but not yet a man, Marek struggles to be taken seriously by his brother Olaf. When their father is arrested and Olaf defers attending university to help out at home, Marek argues unsuccessfully for quitting school to work. Physically he can't keep up with Olaf or the other men in the story, but his quick thinking and knowledge of engines saves him and his brother and the resistance several times over and earns him the respect of resistance leader, Jorgen.

Resistance invites young readers to consider the morality of certain actions undertaken in war, specifically when a country is occupied by a brutal aggressor such as Nazi Germany was. Several of the secondary characters in the novel commit murder. The first is the murder of Wold in retaliation for the sexual assault of Agnete and the brutal beating of Olaf when he tried to protect her. Rape by German officers was extremely common in all occupied countries during the Second World War. Seeing the effect the assault had on Agnete, Olaf is determined to kill Wold and formulates a plan to blow up his car. Marek doesn't give the plan much thought, eagerly participates in its development and even helps Olaf carry it out.  After Olaf shoots Wold, Marek recalls the pity he felt for the reindeer Olaf killed on the Hardanger and states, "Towards Wold I felt nothing, despite him being a fellow human being. I suppose he represented to me all the evil of the Nazis. And somehow that rid me of guilt or shame." 

Much later on, when Marek, his brother and other members of the resistance are being driven to Jondal by Hartwig, Marek struggles against his feelings of friendship towards the Nazi. Hartwig states that "Underneath, we're just like everyone else. And we want an end to the war as much as you. I think people forget that we're not here by choice. They forget that we did not ask to wear this uniform or carry guns. Most of all, though, they forget that the very idea of shooting a fellow human being is abhorrent to many of us." It is Marek's ability to identify with a man he should hate that ultimately saves Hartwig's life.When they are leaving Hartwig's car, Marek recognizes that Jorgen is going to kill Hartwig. But he finds he cannot allow Jorgen to do this evil act. "We can't let Hartwig go in case he reports us. He had to die. And that struck me as wrong. I reached out and seized Jorgen's arm. He glared at me. I shook my head. 'It's OK,' I said quietly."

When Olaf kills a second man, a German soldier, during their daring rescue of their desperately ill father, Marek recognizes how war has changed his brother. "I saw only hatred in Olaf's eyes, hatred in its purest form, cold as ice diamonds and without remorse. Who was this standing before me? Could it really be the same brother as the one I thought I knew, the one who'd wanted to study medicine and dedicate his life to helping his fellow man?"

As the resistance's plan begins to collapse and some members are arrested, Marek comes to realize the terrible choices war forces people to make. When they suspect Harald of having betrayed their plans, Marek tells Ingrid he would never cut a deal with the Nazis. Ingrid however tells him not to judge Harald too severely "Faced with a firing squad and the promise that your whole family will be arrested and tortured, most human beings would understandably seize any offer, however treacherous." This scene is a foreshadowing of the larger and more personal betrayal Marek will confront near the end of the novel.

Likewise, when Jan and the other resistance members are captured in Ork, Marek and his group once again faces impossible choice. "Do nothing and Jan and his fellow Jossings would face execution. Liberate them and an equally horrid fate might befall the good people of Ork. The enormity crushed me and I had to sit down, glum-faced. Any sense that we were trying to do something brave or heroic vanished...It boiled down to a simple fact. We were deciding who would live and who would die -- or, at the very least, who would suffer most..." Marek begins to realize in war, people face difficult choices that challenge their deeply held beliefs and that people often act very differently from what they might do outside of war.

Resistance was British author Craig Simpson's first published novel and was written after considerable research into life in Norway during the Nazi occupation of World War II. The precarious existence of all who were part of the resistance movement against the Nazi's is well presented in Resistance. Few new all the details of specific operations and many paid the ultimate price in the attempt to fight back against the Nazi occupiers. Simpson includes a map of the setting for Resistance and an excellent Postscript that fills in details about the Nazi occupation of Norway.

While Resistance will definitely appeal to boys, anyone with an interest in World War II will find this novel well worth reading. And that definitely includes adult readers.

Book Details:
Resistance by Craig Simpson
London: Corgi Books    2007
353 pp.

No comments: