January 17, 2012

Behind Enemy Lines : World War II, Sam Frederiksen, Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1944

by Carol Matas
Scholastic Canada
196 pp.
Ages 9-12

Scholastic Canada's new historical fiction series for boys, I am Canada, is a brilliant twin to their Dear Canada series, whose female protagonist and diary entry emphases are often tiresome for boys interested in historical fiction. Behind Enemy Lines: World War II is the fifth book in this series, due out in February.

Sam Frederiksen is an eighteen-year-old Canadian airman/gunner when his plane is shot down over Nazi-occupied France in 1944.  He and the injured navigator, Bill, are rescued by a French boy of the French Resistance who takes them to safety.  Sam joins other Allies, including James Thompson, a Brit, and Ben Webber, an American, at a local Resistance fighter's farm to help sabotage the infrastructure the Nazis use (e.g., railroads, etc.). When the farmer's daughter's fiancé is arrested, she betrays her parents and the Allies, hoping to secure his release. Luckily, the farmer anticipates the Germans' strategy and moves the Allied airmen to safety, though his own farm is burned to the ground.

Sam often thinks about his Danish family back in Winnipeg, believing in the generosity of people such as his father, the doctor, and finds it hard to believe the rumours of Hitler's assault on the Jewish people and the treachery of others in supporting their actions.  Sam is safely taken to Paris, where he meets up with Max, a Jewish member of his downed air crew,  but they are betrayed and handed over to the Germans, along with other French Resistance fighters and Allies.  Sam begins to really see the true circumstances of the occupation, especially after they are sent to Buchenwald, the concentration camp.  There Sam is witness to the emaciated prisoners in their blue and white striped pyjamas, and the cruel SS officers with dogs, and the vile smells coming from ever-burning chimneys, but Sam still holds some hope that they will be treated as POWs according to the Geneva Convention, just as POWs in Canada were being treated.

Sam's naiveté is not borne of ignorance but rather hope and honour.  He is relentless in adhering to the protocol that he only share his name, rank and service number, and in following the directions of the Allied officers they choose to lead them. When the prisoners in his cattle car are taken off and marched away at gunpoint, after an escape attempt, they are sure of their execution, but still do not cower or show shame, as they recognized the honour in following their orders to escape from the enemy.  By availing himself of the help of so many strangers and of the information they share with him, Sam gains both in wisdom and heart, during a time when many were abandoning both.

Surprisingly, there is a factual basis for this story, and Carol Matas, always a thorough researcher of history, provides extensive notes about it.  (An NFB documentary from 1994, titled The Lucky Ones: Allied Airmen and Buchenwald by Michael Allder also tells the story.) Matas provides additional notes related to the role of Canadians in WWII air operations, the work of the French Resistance fighters and the Holocaust, as well as images, of airmen and concentration camp prisoners.

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