CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 23 . . . . February 17, 2012
Behind Enemy Lines: World War II. (I Am Canada).
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2012.
200 pp., hardcover, $14.99.
Canada. Royal Canadian Air Force-Gunners-Juvenile fiction.
World War, 1939-1945-Prisoners and prisons, German-Juvenile fiction.
Prisoners of war-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Prisoners of war-Germany-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 6-12 / Ages 11-17.
Review by Rob Bittner.
We were put on a bus and driven through the city with a young Gestapo officer as our “tour guide.” If it hadn’t been so clearly sickening, I think I would have laughed. He talked away, showing us the sites, with no idea how disgusting it was for us to listen to him gab on as if he and his gang owned the city and could talk about it as if they belonged there and weren’t occupiers and thugs! And this just after telling us—with a smile—that if anyone tried to escape they would be shot on the spot. I reminded him that we were RCAF flyers and should be treated as such, and he just said, “You are sounding very foolish. You were in a prison with Resistance fighters, therefore you are Resistance fighters and we are treating you exactly the way we treat them.”
Sam Frederiksen’s plane has been shot down over France, and he is trapped in enemy territory. While attempting to get back to England to fly more missions, he becomes involved with the French Resistance, an action that puts him in danger of being executed as a spy and Resistance collaborator if he is apprehended by German forces. Sam and others have managed to sabotage Nazi supply lines, and they are on their way to Spain to escape Nazi occupied France when things begin to go horribly wrong. The men come across individuals who are the epitome of human courage, but also encounter unimaginable human suffering and cruelty.
The narrative voice is potent and realistic, and Carol Matas does a marvelous job capturing both the hope and courage in Sam’s personality as well as the terror he feels as he is transported around Nazi occupied territory against his will. As he experiences first-hand the cruelty of the Germans and the brutality of the concentration camps, the truth of his situation is never overwrought with heavy-handed factuality or didacticism. Behind Enemy Lines is a fantastic account of one Canadian’s struggles through World War II in occupied France.
The secondary characters are just as meticulously crafted as Sam. Max, a Jewish friend and fellow RCAF flyer, is particularly frantic as he learns of the plight of other Jews in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territories. His friendship with Sam is strong and emotionally poignant. Along with Max, Sam encounters others that bring complexity and, at times, humour to the narrative. The terror of the concentration camps and prisons is brought out in the supporting characters Sam encounters as he is shipped throughout France and Germany against his will.
Even as Sam witnesses unspeakable evils, Matas keeps her descriptions from becoming overly graphic, though they are explicit enough to remind readers of the darkness that lurks within human beings, especially in times of war and desperation. Though Sam, himself, is a fictional character, the historical elements of the narrative are vivid and well-researched. There is a note in the back of the novel detailing actual historical events during the time of Sam’s experiences in the story. There are also photographs in the back, showing actual RCAF flyers, airplanes, and other equipment, as well as photos from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Matas’s talent as a writer shines through in this historical fictional account of Sam Frederiksen’s time behind enemy lines.
Rob Bittner is a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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