Saturday, September 5, 2015

Courage & Defiance

You know I am a fan of well-crafted, thought-provoking nonfiction of all kinds.  I love when a title leaves me with questions - things to mull over later.  I strongly believe that the best nonfiction leaves you wanting more, that the reader will then take the bibliography or resource list and continue to learn.  When I was offered the chance to review Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs and Survivors in World War II Denmark, I knew that Deborah Hopkinson would have written a book that would make me think.  I had already read and loved many of her previous titles, including most recently Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.   What I didn't know when I accepted this assignment was that I would cry, cheer and sit in awe of the people contained within its pages.

The story Hopkinson tells is about the small island nation of Denmark.  When Germany came marching into Denmark on April 6, 1940, the country of Denmark did nothing.  The.  Not y quickly realized that their military could not resist the much larger German military, and their best hope was to surrender.  Amazingly, while the Danish government thought this was the safest plan of action, its people did not agree.  Hopkinson writes "But it began that first day, when ordinary citizens woke up to a changed world.  It began with anger, disbelief, and determination.  And it began with individuals asking themselves a difficult, almost impossible question: what can one person - or even a few together - do to make a difference against a powerful invading force?" (p. 22-23)

To me, the answer to the question is continually surprising.  Not because one or two people wanted to make a difference, or even hoped they could, but because so many Danish citizens stood up against the Germans.  They fought back in clever ways, risking their lives to do what was right.  For instance, Tommy Sneum, who was a pilot and lived by a German-occupied air force base.  A German soldier accidentally gave Tommy information about an early-warning system that the Germans were using to watch for Allied planes at the base.  Sneum risked his life repeatedly to get this system documented and the information to the Allies.  This included such inconceivable tasks as reconstructing an airplane in a farmer's barn to fly it across the ocean to England to deliver the intelligence.  And since they couldn't risk landing the single-engine plane anywhere the Germans might discover them, Tommy and his co-pilot would have to refuel in midair.

Tommy's story is just one of the incredibly daring stories Hopkinson has documented here.  And what is incredible to me about these stories is that these aren't necessarily the stories of generals in the Danish military or government officials scheming to save their countrymen.  These are the stories of people like you and me.  Many of the stories involve young people who easily see the injustice and fight back.  Niels Skov begins his sabotage by blowing up German cars on the street.  It may have seemed small, but it was something.

Hopkinson follows several people throughout the war, retelling their efforts at collecting information, performing feats of sabotage, and basically doing everything possible to slow the Germans down.  One truly amazing story begins on October 1, 1943, the day the Germans came to round up all of the Danish Jews.  There were 7700 Jews in Denmark, and it would take the bravery of many people to get as many of them as possible to safety.  Reading this story was one of the times tears came to my eyes - the entire country showed courage and defiance in accomplishing this miracle.  They protected their Jewish neighbors and friends and got more than 7200 of them to Sweden safely.  That is a jaw-dropping number.

Even for those of us who are familiar with the history of World War II, there is something new to learn here.  I mentioned earlier that this book left me with additional questions. Hopkinson's book inspired me to learn more.  In her prologue, she advises "Courage & Defiance is an introduction to a multifaceted, complex story, and there are many aspects I have not addressed." (p. 1)  For example, I wanted to learn more about how 7200 Jews were able to move into hiding without attracting attention from German soldiers on very short notice.  I want to know more about the governmental response.  A good piece of nonfiction gets the reader wondering, and then it provides the reader with strong resources to continue their exploration of the subject.

The back matter in this book is, of course, complete and extraordinary.  There are pages o selected resources (including a section of books of special interest to young readers), online resources, source notes, information on the Danish language, and more.  My only minor complaint is that while I read the book, I kept wishing for a map of Denmark to be able to better visualize some of the action.  I did find one, but it was in the back matter, so I didn't find it until I was finished with the book.  That might be a lesson for those of you who are teachers - encourage your students to explore the back matter first, to get a feeling for what information they will be exposed to in the heart of the book.

These stories give hope in the face of one of the greatest evils our world has known.  People all over Denmark stood up and did something, even if it was small.  Hopkinson's retelling is suspenseful and readable.  I couldn't put it down and can't wait to share it with others.  Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for appearing.  For other stops on the Courage & Defiance blog tour, please check

Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark. Deborah Hopkinson.  Scholastic Press, 2015.

sent by the author for review

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