Margi Preus – Shadow on the Mountain

Shadow on the Mountain recounts the adventures of a 14-year-old Norwegian boy named Espen during World War II. After Nazi Germany invades and occupies Norway, Espen and his friends are swept up in the Norwegian resistance movement. Espen gets his start by delivering illegal newspapers, then graduates to the role of courier and finally becomes a spy, dodging the Gestapo along the way. During five years under the Nazi regime, he gains—and loses—friends, falls in love, and makes one small mistake that threatens to catch up with him as he sets out to escape on skis over the mountains to Sweden.

Preus incorporates archival photographs, maps, and other images to tell this story based on the real-life adventures of Norwegian Erling Storrusten, whom Preus interviewed in Norway.

I have a big soft spot for WWII stories as my dad used to read lots of them to me when I was little and it sparked a, thus far, life-long interest in the subject. I’ve read lots of books, be it children’s books, fiction, or non-fiction, on the war in Western Europe, mostly from either a Dutch, British or American slant. I also know some about the events in South-East Asia as my grandparents were there, but beyond those territories I’m not terribly well-informed. So beyond the fact that they were occupied by the Germans, I didn’t really know what the war was like in Norway. When I saw Shadow on the Mountain on the Book Smugglers’ Radar, I knew this was a book for me.

Shadow on the Mountain tells the story of a teenage boy called Espen during the German occupation of Norway. Told rather episodically, the narrative covers five years running from October 1940 until February 1945; there are some links between the different periods, but because the book covers five years a lot of time gets skipped. While the book focuses on Espen, we also get chapters told from the point of view of Ingrid, Espen’s sister, and Aksel, one of the boys on Espen’s soccer team who joins up with the Germans. Espen and Ingrid are lovely and won’t let themselves be forced into acquiescing to German occupation without a fight, while Aksel is a haughty, ambitious and ruthless character, who aims to get a high position within the Nazi party whatever the cost. The author does try to humanise him, showing that he chose this path to take care of his mother and to fight against the Russians, who killed his father. Still, it doesn’t really take away from his unpleasant character and there is even a sense that his own mother is appalled at the choices her son makes. I also kept wondering at her, as there was a sense that she might not just disapprove of her son’s actions, but might even be using what he tells her to work against him. It was a reminder that people aren’t always what they seem to be; a theme that is reiterated by how Kjell’s story is told.

Espen is supported by some amazing characters. First of all, there is Ingrid, his little sister, who has the most indomitable spirit. She personifies the importance of even the smallest act of rebellion against the oppressor and the fact that kindness is always a good thing and will beget kindness. She brings some of the prisoners of war who are interned at a camp nearby food and in doing so, not only helps those poor starving souls in the camp, but also allows the author to make the point that not all German soldiers were evil, that a lot of them were no more than conscripted young boys, who had no more desire to be there than that the Norwegians wanted them there. Ingrid is joined by Tante Marie, the wise old woman who is Espen’s contact in the Resistance, Solveig, Espen’s girlfriend, who shows that no matter the circumstances people will fall in love regardless and the boys of Oleanna, who are part of Espen’s resistance cell.

Shadow on the Mountain doesn’t really have a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. Instead, it gives us episodes and vignettes from Espen’s life during the war, showing us what it was like for regular people during the war. It is a story about doing what is right, about being brave in the face of danger and knowing that even small things can make a difference. The book shows the importance of compassion, kindness and humanity when confronted by inhumanity and horror. Most importantly, it shows that it isn’t always the people you expect it to be who turn out to be the heroes and that everyone can be a hero.

Since they weren’t included in my eARC of the book, I can’t comment on the archival photographs, maps, and other images, however, I adore the use of visual matter to support children’s stories. When I was a child I loved books with photos and pictures in them – I still do – and I know from watching the children in my surroundings and even my own two that visuals really help in keeping their attention on a book. So Shadow of the Mountain already gets a huge bonus for using them, but I can’t comment on how well they use them and what kind of photo’s are there.

Over the past six and a half decades there have been many books published recounting the history of the Second World War, but it’s a story that bears retelling time and again, as its lessons should never be forgotten. Shadow of the Mountain tells the story from an interesting new angle and shows us the importance of humanity and compassion. Its lack of straightforward plot lets it down a little, however its characters make up for it. The book will draw in its middle grade audience and hopefully inspire them to search out more war narratives or even read some of the important non-fiction out there for kids. This book wasn’t written for an adult audience, it was definitely written for kids, but if you are drawn to WWII stories, you might still enjoy this. Otherwise, it will make a great present for the middle grade or younger YA readers of your acquaintance.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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