I’ve read and enjoyed all of the Bible-based fictional novels by my friend, author Barbara M. Britton. Notice that I’ve categorized this review of her latest release under THE WRTING LIFE as well as reviews. That’s because, while reading her earlier titles and this latest one, I’ve noticed something about her writing that I admire. It’s something I attempt to do when writing historical stories of my own.
Teaching, without teaching.
I am not deeply rooted in, or familiar with, the specifics of individual Old Testament stories, especially those featuring secondary characters. Even so, I learn so much about the nuance of the time, place, and culture of each Biblical era Britton incorporates when writing her fictional stories. It is the richness of those details, though, that bring her characters to life, that anchor their dramatic stories and intense relationships in a world that would otherwise be unfamiliar, but one in which I feel at home.
These stories will certainly drive some readers back to intense reading of the Bible, since Barbara provides back matter to indicate the inspiration for each of her novels and characters. Some readers will be more like me. I find the rich details enhance my engagement without feeling a push to pursue further source reading. There’s a fine talent in producing that balance between these two types of readers– providing enough to make a full and authentic experience as a free-standing novel, while lacing enough intriguing elements to enthrall other readers, urging them to dig deeper through related readings.
Therein lies Barbara’s gift.
I believe you will enjoy reading this first of this trilogy, and you can learn quite a bit about weaving research and imagination in effective writing.
This first of three titles in a new series is focused on Mahlah, the oldest of five suddenly orphaned daughters. Still a teen, she is dedicated, first-and-always, to God, but then to her family and their right to claim a plot of land despite being all females. The novel opens at the conclusion of forty long years of survival in the desert, a righteous people poised to begin their assault on the walls of Jericho. She relies on their Moses-validated claim to her family’s inherited right to a land share. She is well aware that this requires her to challenge the deep-rooted Jewish gender-based culture that denied female independence or property ownership.
I have a general Old Testament background, but nothing that would win a trivia contest. That (or less) is as much as any reader will need to plunge deeply into Mahlah’s story, to identify with her situation, and to cheer for her from the opening pages. Within the first chapters, readers will experience the immeasurable exhaustion of people who have been abiding in a desert for forty years, sustained by manna and quail, but deflated and even infuriated by the seemingly endless generational waiting for a prophecy to be fulfilled.
Britton has an impressive ability to weave Biblical references, like worshipping pagan idols, into a story that feels nearly contemporary in its urgency and relevance. Those who are entrenched in Biblical reading will find plenty of familiar details, but even without that Mahlah and Britton’s other characters soar. The plot and setting are structured seamlessly and with such sensory and descriptive world-building that the characters move through challenges, develop relationships, and confront complex obstacles as if their lives are unfolding in a movie. Britton’s dialogue and narrative language keep readers rooted in this vivid time and place while unveiling the timelessness of romance, temptations, politics, financial stress, and family love.
The word feminist is never used, of course, and it shouldn’t be. For some reason “feminist” still does not seem to be well-understood even in modern times, and it certainly would not suit this carefully researched and constructed fictional world. Instead, Mahlah’s journey requires her to be a Lioness on behalf of herself, her family, and their independence.
And she is. The struggle to assure her family’s future is less a battle of feminism than it is a struggle for JUSTICE. Mahlah demands that promises be kept and that EACH AND EVERY life be recognized as valuable. In the process, a story is told that will keep readers turning pages and holding their breath throughout her journey.
Mahlah is clearly the star of this novel, but her younger sisters are allowed to share the stage and scenes enough to know that they, too, can take leading roles in the upcoming titles. Groundwork is well laid for each to move with their tribes into the next stages of Bible history as a background to future compelling and relevant developments in their individual and family lives.
Britton’s novels are categorized as “Bible-based fiction”. Labels can be double-edged swords, identifiers that may attract attention or discourage browsers. I know that labels serve useful purposes for marketing, as shortcuts to communicate, even for shelving for sale at physical or digital bookstores. For those, like me, who might not turn to this category without urging, consider this a serious urge to give this (and Britton’s other novels) a try. I’m confident that her storytelling and writing will leave you recommending her books as firmly as I do.
Did I always want to be a writer? I read books as a child for school and pleasure, but didn’t see myself becoming an author. Many years later while writing curriculum for elementary school chapels, I hit a mental block and prayed, “Lord, hit me with some creativity.” I composed all my lesson plans, but when I finished, I had a prompting to write more. Nine books, and twelve years later, my Biblical Romantic Adventures are being shared with readers. Not all my stories are set in Scripture–I’m an equal opportunity adventure writer—but after years of bringing Bible stories to life for kindergarten through fifth graders, I thought why not write what I teach.
So, sit back, open my books, and hang on for fiction based in truth.
Soon after ODIN’S PROMISE released, readers offered the kindest gift of all- a continuing interest in Mari and her family as the occupation of Norway continued. I had never intended to write a sequel, but I swallowed hard and dug into research, then writing. As I wrote about the ensuing four-plus years of war and occupation, I realized I needed to write those developments in two volumes.
The segment shared today was from my original attempt at a single volume. I share it in the sprit of the holidays, with a follow-up comment afterwards. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
In this early plot line Mari traveled alone to Oslo instead of to Bergen, as she did in MARI’S HOPE. She stayed with her sister Lise for medical training during a period when schools were closed in 1942. This passage takes place as she is preparing to return to Ytre Arna.
Palace Park, Oslo, Norway
During a quick breakfast Mari convinced Lise to send the remaining garments home unfinished. Enough of the secondhand clothing would fit for spring and she intended to master the sewing machine when she returned to save Mama and Bestemor the trouble the othersof making alterations.
She craved more time with her sister, so they spent much of the day on a final tour of Oslo, ending up at the park. The surprising shift in weather brought little wind that day and the sun penetrated layers of wool clothing.
Mari loosened the scarf around her head and dropped it to her shoulders. “The best weather of the winter arrived just in time to see me off.”
Lise tilted her face to the sun’s warmth and breathed deeply. “It’s always colder here than on the coast, but this winter has been brutal.” She wrapped an arm around her sister’s waist and leaned her head on Mari’s shoulder. “Just remember that the worst winter is always followed by spring, even when you can’t feel it coming. It’s inevitable, and we must not give up hope.”
They sat silently for several minutes. Mari clung to Lise, wishing she could stay. She had come to rely on her sister’s advice, her medical training, and the solace of uninterrupted hours to escape into academics.
On the other hand it felt more like a year than a month since she’d seen Bestemor, Mama, and Papa. Despite the elaborate network of underground messages, very little could be learned about individuals and families. Her dread at the thought of returning to school was the opposite of her feelings before the invasion. Now she feared pressure to join the girls’ youth group. The resistance newspapers reported that Quisling was ignoring the refusals of parents across the country and had dropped his demands, but Mari was feeling desperate to hear that from Mama and Papa.
The sound of boots approaching interrupted her thoughts.
“Guten Tag,Fräu Olmsted.You have no work today?”
A German officer stood before them, blocking the sun, and addressed Lise. Mari squinted up at him and then dropped her eyes without speaking.
“Hilsen, Doctor Braun. My sister returns home tonight so I arranged my schedule to be free today.” Lise stood to speak to him, but barely reached his shoulder so she was staring up into the sun.
“Wunderbar! I have a free afternoon as well. May I treat you both to a farewell dinner?” He offered his arm to Lise and extended his hand to Mari.
Mari struggled to hold still, fighting the impulse to bolt. She didn’t dare lift her eyes. Even a glimpse of his uniform might trigger an attempt to escape.
“Nie, takk, Doctor Braun. I’m afraid we’ve wasted most of the day enjoying the weather and have very little time to finish packing.” Lise bent over to collect her bag and tugged at Mari’s elbow. Mari’s impulse to run was suddenly replaced by a desperate need to remain frozen on the bench, as immovable as one of the many sculptures in the park.
“Surely you have enough time for a bit of sweets? Come along to the hotel dining room and I’ll have them pack a little box of treats for your journey.” Mari felt his hand on her elbow and clamped her jaw tight to prevent herself from shouting NEI.
Lise squeezed her other arm and urged Mari to her feet. “It’s a very kind offer, Herr Doctor, and it is on our way home. If you insist, we’ll stop with you for just a few minutes.”
The shock of Lise’s words left Mari half stumbling along, her sister’s arm linked through hers and the doctor’s hand holding the other. Her mind raced, searching for possible reasons why Lise would agree. It wasn’t until they reached the end of the block and stepped through the lobby entrance that she realized they were now two Norwegian girls walking through Oslo at the side of a German officer. It was all she could do not to wretch on the royal blue carpet.
She felt herself being guided to a small glass table where the officer pulled out two chairs. “I’ll only be a moment, I promise.” By the time she dared to look up he was out of sight.
Mari leaned toward Lise to demand an explanation but her sister squeezed her hand, smiled brightly, and whispered, “Not now. At home.” Lise sat back in her chair and seemed to be examining every inch of the hotel.
Mari concentrated on breathing normally and glanced around. She felt like an injured elk surrounded by a pack of timber wolves. Soldiers and officers hustled in and out of the elevators, seldom pausing for conversations. To her relief, none seemed to even notice them.
Sooner than she expected, the doctor returned. He placed a small bakery box on the table. “It’s only some sandwiches and sweets, but you said you were in a hurry. I hope you’ll have a safe and easy journey home, young one.”
Her sister stood and Mari quickly did the same. Lise picked up the box and shook the doctor’s hand. “Danke, Doctor Braun. It is one less task to tend to before time to go.”
He nodded his head and smiled. Without the sun glaring behind him Mari saw that he was considerably older, perhaps Papa’s age, and his eyes looked surprisingly kind.
“We appreciate your generosity, don’t we, Mari?”
“Ja, takk,” she managed to say, ignoring his extended hand. She pushed in her chair and turned toward the doors.
“It’s nothing, but I hope you’ll find it helpful.” He followed them across the lobby and tipped his hat as they left. “Auf Wiederhesen.”
As soon as they were out of sight of the hotel, Mari demanded, “What were you thinking?”
Her sister’s expression warned her to wait until they reached the relative safety of her apartment.
* * *
While Lise did the supper dishes Mari took one last survey of the bedroom, making sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind. It was a struggle to focus on anything after her sister explained the decision to join Dr. Braun. Details were few, but Dr. Braun had gone out of his way to help Lise several times since he arrived at the hospital in the fall. He was one of the few German staff who knew about the deserted office space where Mari studied at the hospital. He had even obtained a visitor’s identification card for her in case someone questioned why she was there. He had proudly shown Lise pictures of his two daughters, close in age to Mari. He missed them terribly. Lise believed he was a genuinely kind man and had observed him treating all patients with equal skill and medications, whether they were Germans or Norwegians or even prisoners from the resistance.
That did little to remove Mari’s objections to being seen with him, to accepting his gifts. She wondered what might be demanded of Lise in return for such generosity.
When they opened the box at her apartment they found two sandwiches with ham, cheese, and real butter along with four small of cakes. Tucked in the side of the box were a dozen or more extra ration tickets for meat and vegetables. They divided the food and Mari insisted that Lise keep the ration tickets. She was on her own in the city now and had no canned garden foods tucked away in a basement cold storage room as Mari did at home.
Lise stepped in the bedroom. “All set? Leif could be here any minute. You don’t plan to sit around and visit, do you?”
Mari moved to the living room and made a half-hearted attempt to look around the tables and shelves for anything of hers. “Not at all. I just want to get this trip over with as soon as possible and get back home.”
Lise followed her and tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned Lise handed her a science lab notebook. Lise exaggerated a scolding expression but slipped into a grin despite herself. “I thought you checked the bedroom? Are you giving up science studies?”
Mari took the workbook and tucked it into her backpack. “I just can’t seem to think straight. How am I going to get through all those hours on the train with Lief?” She took a moment to rearrange the items in her pack to cover the secret lining holding messages and other documents.
“You might change your mind and take the sleeping powders once you are on the train. You still have them, don’t you?”
Mari’s hand slipped into her pocket and she patted a slim envelope. “Yes, but I won’t use that approach unless my nerves get the better of me. I can’t take a chance on being muddy-headed around him. It would be awful to sleep so deeply he could go though my bags.”
She tugged the two overloaded cases to the door then walked to the window. “Where is he? It will be dark soon. I really don’t want to be out on the street with him past curfew.”
Mari felt her sister’s arm around her shoulder and leaned into her. She fought back tears and whispered, “Tusen takk for everything. I’ll miss you so much. When will I see you again?”
“I’ll be going to _(research Erik’s suitable town)__more often now to see Erik, so I won’t get back to Ytre Arna. Perhaps at the holidays again, but only if my schedule permits.”
Lise stepped back and brushed a tear from Mari’s cheek. “You’ll be spending much more time with Doctor Olsen when you return, and you can ask him anything. Even if Mama, Papa, and Bestemor are busy or tired, they want you to tell them when you need help or have questions.”
Lise stepped back further and looked Mari over from head to toe, then gazed directly into her eyes. “You’re just a young girl, Mari, barely a teenager. This invasion and occupation have pushed you into chores and worries and secrets only an adult should have to carry. You may look and feel older than you are, but you are always our little one.”
I share this passage today as a reminder to us all. Every person is an individual, and no matter how justified we may feel in judging their choices and actions, we can never know what is in their heart. We’ve been living through times of suspicion, anger, and fear. perhaps more so than at any other times in our lives (at least for those who are young). Stress and worry makes us miserable. Lise mentions above: Even when it feels impossible, Spring always follows Winter. As I often write when signing books:
May you know the love, laughter and strength of family,
I sent out my winter newsletter earlier this week. If you aren’t a subscriber, you missed some recaps of the past year and comments about current projects. (It’s a busy season, so no worries.) In it I included a brief outtake from the last book in the trilogy, a passage related to the Jul season. At this stage, years into the German occupation, Norway’s circumstances were leaner and more challenging than ever, and yet Mari and her family and so many others held firmly to their hopes for the future, for a better life ahead.
I decided to share this snippet that couldn’t squeeze into the final word count for MARI’S HOPE. If you find yourself able to celebrate the holidays with an abundance of blessings, good for you. If you find yourself longing for better days, olden days, absent loved ones, or in any way feeling less than joyous, please hold on to hope. Draw on the strength of love, laughter, and family, past or present.
A Holiday OUTTAKE from the CUTTING ROOM FlOOR (MARI’S HOPE)
During her months in Bergen, Mari had managed, with a little help from Rolf, to barter several older items and a few keepsakes for one fine silk blouse. As the Jul season approached, she began working on her plan.
The weeks leading up to Jul night were stressful and exhausting as the outbreak of unexplained disease spread through Ytre Arna. Each night she collapsed on Bestemor’s sofa, but struggled to relax. Once the others were asleep, she used that perfect opportunity to work on her secret project.
With carefulplanning, that precious blouse yielded enough fabric for a dozen small handkerchiefs.
Mari pulled silk threads from the blouse remnants to hem the handkerchief edges. Then, all along the borders, she used single strands of red embroidery floss to repeat this pattern:
.- .-.. – / ..-. — .-. / -. — .-. –. .
While in Bergen, Mari had studied International Morse Code, again with Rolf’s help. Her pattern repeated Norway’s national slogan, ALT FOR NORGE, “All for Norway”. Once she was satisfied that her message was in place, Mari added leaves and vines with green floss threads. If those red threads were pointed out to someone who knew Morse Code, the messagecould be read easily. Otherwise, it that code was safely nestled into the border of a holiday hanky.
The design was not at all traditional, but it was expertly stitched, thanks to Mari’s scrupulous training with a needle and thread from Mama, Bestemor, and Doctor Olsen.
The weather resumed its mild patterns and Mari crisscrossed the mountainside, checking on patients and watching for signs of new illness or outbreaks. If nothing developed, school could reopen after the first of the year. She applied the bartering lessons she had developed during the first year of occupation. People she visited (and trusted) were thrilled to learn the code and were eager to carry a silent symbol of protest. Her clever trading and the affection felt for her by the villagers allowed Mari to acquire Jul gifts for everyone on her list.
May your holiday season and the year ahead be filled with good health, agreeable weather, and finding ways to calm and center yourself. May your thoughts and energy often turn to others and their needs.
And may you hold tight to your values and identity, surrounding yourself with people you can trust.
It’s been fun to hear from folks who enjoyed reading my prior post of “outtakes” from early efforts at my Norway trilogy. I dug into some of the other “rescued” chapters from various versions and found another to share. The characters from my prior post have undergone multiple rewrites before reaching this stage, and this next passage shows a bit of my growth in learning how to include information within the context of the story rather than as a “pull-back” or “information dump”. It’s still not publication-ready, but I can recognize my own progress as I read back from a several years later.
That night Nils hurried back to his family with his good news.
His older sister Lise wouldn’t learn about the upcoming wedding plans until her next visit, and no one could guess when that would be. She worked as a housekeeper for several German occupation families in Bergen.
Lise’s husband captained a fishing boat that had escaped to England with other ships when the invasion began. She and her family feared for his safety as he supported the resistance in the North Sea, but she had to find a way to support herself and their daughter. It eased her mind only slightly to realize that the occasional tidbits of information she could gather in the German households might help the war effort in some small way.
Anika was safer by far living with her aunt and uncles in Ytre Arna, but she missed her mother and father terribly. Lise’s youngest sister, Kristia, was only seventeen, but together with her brothers they provided love and security for their niece Anika, helping her to weather these dark days without her parents.
When Nils announced the unexpected news of a wedding, the room erupted with enthusiastic congratulations, questions, and hugs. As the chatter subsided, Kristia said, “Anika, it’s past your bedtime, even if it is Saturday. Come along now.”
“Not yet, Tante Kristia…” Anika pleaded.
“Hurry now, and we’ll still have time for a story or two before the lights are turned out,” Kristia said, taking Anika by the hand and leading her down the hall.
Anika squirmed away and ran back to Nils, squeezing him around the waist and pressing her face and braids into his stomach. “Onkel Nils, will there be an almond wreath cake? Will it have flags?” she asked.
Nils tucked his hand under her chin, tilting her head back to look into her hopeful blue eyes. “We’ll see, little one, we’ll see. We don’t have to decide tonight, do we?”
Before long Anika and the others had settled in for the night. But sleep eluded Nils, who spent several hours asking himself Anika’s questions.
And many, many others.
The next morning, Nils spoke with Sonja again on their way to church. “I’ve been thinking about our wedding plans,” Nils said, smiling.
“You’re not getting cold feet, are you?” she asked with a grin.
“Not at all… in fact, I’ve been hatching a rather daring idea.”
“Tell me, quickly. “ She leaned in closer and whispered, “I hope you’re not thinking of taking off for the mountains again!”
“We’ll talk after services,” he said, as they climbed the gravel road rising through the village center to the white timber church. All Sonja could do was frown and gently jab him in the ribs with her elbow.
Later that day, while they hiked deeper and deeper into the forest on a rugged mountain path above the town, she insisted on an explanation. “How much farther do we need to go, silly? Are we hunting for trolls to attack the Germans? A wedding is not such a secret as you are making it out to be, and I can’t wait another minute!”
Nils smiled, sensing he had stalled long enough. “Your mama gave me the idea yesterday. I checked the calendar last night. We could schedule our wedding day for May 17! Syttende Mai falls on a Saturday next spring, and we could invite the whole town!”
Sonja’s expression quickly shifted from annoyance to surprise to excitement as Nils continued.
“If the Germans are allowing traditional dress and songs at weddings, we could use our celebration to give our district their Constitution Day!” He had spoken softly, but his eyes were bright and he smiled hopefully at Sonja. “But would you mind sharing your wedding day with our country’s holiday?”
“Of course not,” she laughed. “At least you’d have no excuse for forgetting our anniversary, even when we’re both old and senile! Do you really think it would work? How could we get enough food? Where would we hold the celebration? When would…?”
“Nils put his index finger to her lips and smiled. “Those are just a few of the questions I have, too, but we’ll find the answers to them somehow. I know we can, if we work together. Should we do it?”
“Absolutely!” she responded with a hug. “Let’s go tell my family!”
“You mean your mama, the resistance leader?” he laughed as they turned back toward town.
I hope you’ll enjoy imagining this version. It more closely reflects the facts of the story I heard about involving an Ytre Arna “resistance wedding” on my first visit to Norway, many years after the war had ended.
My end-of-year-holiday newsletter will be ready in a week or so and will include a short holiday excerpt that was cut from the final book in the trilogy. If you haven’t already signed up to receive the newsletter, it’s easy to do>>> in that right column, over there. My newsletters aren’t long, so if you care to get updates a couple of times a year, sign up to have it drop into your inbox.
Having a single book published was a blessing and a surprise. That’s not for lack of trying. When i visit schools or speak to writing groups. one question I can count on is this: How long did it take to write your book?
My answer: Do you want the thirty-year version or the six-week version?
Finding my way through research, drafts, writing craft, and making a living was a long journey. Eventually, the exact piece of research crossed my path and led me to Mari’s voice and personality. When she joined me at the keyboard those long years of effort paid off and I was able to write a 50,000 word draft in six weeks. That draft benefited from multiple passes through the wise eyes and minds of my critique partners and other readers. (Always check acknowledgements to appreciate how many hearts and minds lift a book to its best). Then, after ODIN’S PROMISE was under contract, more revisions were needed. The novel was greatly improved yet again. The next two books in the trilogy generated MANY more outtakes before finding their way to print.
Along the way, I needed to “kill my darlings” countless times.
That’s a writer’s expression for cutting out various scenes, characters, plot elements, even lovely lyrical phrasing. These are all things that had only landed on the page through intense effort and careful thought. Nevertheless, sometimes they must go. A long-ago writing advisor with a background in journalism answered this way to my question about a using or passing on a favorite detail in another piece of writing: Does it make the whole work stronger? If not, why would you use it?
And so, along the way to publication of ODIN’S PROMISE and the two other titles in the trilogy, many passages were pulled, rewritten, and sometimes “killed”. I try to comfort myself and other writers when advising them is to try a different approach, or when they have reached that decision on their own: SAVE those favored passages to use on your website or blog!
Which brings me to this new blog category tab– FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR. In this post I’ll share an early draft from that thirty-year process. In this one I was still locked into an adult perspective and had not yet found Mari’s voice. I was less far in my own writing craft journey. As I reread it I find how very prone to “info-dumping” I was- providing essential background information in extended paragraphs instead of finding ways to thread essential content within the story development.
I plan to include a short outtake with a JUL theme in the winter newsletter in a week or two, so be sure to subscribe (>>over there on the right margin>>) if you’d like to read it.
I hope you enjoy the read, and I would love to read your comments about it.
From a very early attempt:
Clank, clank, clank… cough. Nils heard Knut’s signal and instantly disconnected the radio. In the dim, cramped space of the tiny attic, he worked as swiftly and silently as possible to arrange everything exactly as it should be to avoid suspicion. The radio and its antenna wires were lowered into the space below the floorboards. Sheets of yellowed newspaper were placed on top, edges fitted carefully among layers of newspaper used as insulation between the joists.
Nils gently reset the floorboards in place. Tugging on a small woven rug, he slid a heavy, carved chest across the space, making sure not to disturb the dusty surface. As he backed out of the low crawl space, he placed his feet on the worn runner leading to the trap door, leaving no footprints in the dust and allowing many large cobwebs to remain undisturbed. This was no small feat, since the windows facing the road were hung with heavy canvas, blocking the light from the late evening sun.
Nils was sitting near the parlor window reading the newspaper when Knut stepped through the kitchen door. While Knut scrubbed the garden soil from under his fingernails, Nils called out to him, “So, brother, who is winning the potato war, you or the beetles?”
“The potatoes are in their foxholes and I’m still mounting a good defense,” he laughed. Don’t worry, we’ll have enough to keep your belt fitting tight!” he teased.
Hours later, the two young brothers sat fishing in their small skiff on Sørfjord far from the homes lining the shore and mountainside of Ytre Arna. In the semi-light of the clear mid-summer night, only their silhouettes could be seen, heads bent close together. All was still, but even with no one visible on the roads or near the shore, they kept their voices as soft as the murmur of the waves slapping against the sides of the boat.
“It was ‘The Rat’ tonight,” Knut said.
News from England was broadcast at the same time each evening. All too often, it was at about the same time that a German soldier or officer would appear to stroll down the road to the edge of the fjord. The occupying army had been there only a few months, but the neighbors had already given many of them nicknames. The young corporal they called ‘the rat’ had a long, sharp nose, with a bristly mustache above his thin lips.
“There wasn’t much time to listen before he showed up, so there is little to tell,” Nils reported. The brothers had worked out a pattern of taking turns tending their garden and listening to the radio in the evening at the time when they could receive broadcasts from England. The “garden watch” would signal when a German was spotted at the crest of the road, scraping the shovel three times on a rock, followed by a single cough. Their picturesque road was named Sjøbrotet, meaning “down to the sea”, and a soldier seen on the hilltop could be expected to continue his stroll to the water’s edge, leading him right past their door.
* * *
Since the earliest days of the German invasion, newspapers and local broadcasts had been under Hitler’s control. All news was censored, altered, or simply fabricated. The content was sheer propaganda. The brothers had one of the only undiscovered radios on their side of the fjord. Everyone in the area relied on them for news of the war’s progress.
The brothers knew the risks involved. When the German army arrived in Norway on April 9, 1940, they claimed to come as friends, to offer “protection” from the Allied Forces (England, France, and many others). They had expected no resistance, and there were some in Norway who believed it to be safer or wiser to cooperate with Hitler’s forces.
Quisling, a minor politician in Norway, led the attempt to hand over the capital without a fight. As dearly as Norwegians may have desired peace and neutrality, no true patriot would accept the loss of their king, their government, their resources, or their freedom without a fight.
The allies lent support to the five Norwegian divisions offering armed defense in the southern half of the country. This forced Hitler’s hand, and he promptly issued a declaration of war against Norway. Within only a few weeks the Allies and the army of Norway were in retreat, but not without achieving some remarkable successes.
King Haakon and the chief cabinet officers escaped the country and were able to relocate to England, taking with them their nation’s gold reserves. From there they participated fully with the Allies in the continuing efforts to defeat Hitler. The massive Norwegian merchant fleet sailed to Britain to join that effort, depriving the German’s of the ready-made naval resources they had expected to claim. It was only through remarkable courage and ingenuity that these accomplishments were achieved.
In the months since then, there were tireless and daring efforts from within the country to resist, subvert, and in every possible way defeat the Germans.
The massive invading force had moved in like the well-oiled war machine that it was. Homes were searched on the slightest whim, or with no excuse at all. People were detained, questioned, and confined in forced-labor camps. Some were even tortured and killed.
On the surface the Germans claimed that the local citizens could keep their way of life “normal”. According to Hitler’s warped and dangerous beliefs, people of Scandinavia were, after all, members of the “superior Aryan race”- blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed. Hitler publicly claimed the people of Norway as “brothers”, much to the disgust of Norwegians. This belief made for a less severe occupation that that of other countries, like Poland. But the Norwegians were no more free than the Poles, and the Germans were no less hated there than in southern Europe. Daily life in Norway only offered a façade of “normal”.
Much of the charming city of Bergen on the Southwest coast reflected its medieval roots as a trading hub. Although smaller than Oslo in the east, Bergen had developed extensive business, industrial, medical, and cultural facilities. Located on the North Sea coastline, nestled in a ring of seven sloping mountains, Bergen provided access to the many deep fjords stretching into Norway’s interior. Tempered by Gulf Stream winds, the west coast climate is milder than the rest of the country, making it an ideal site to headquarter the German occupation forces. Stretching across the back slopes of the seven mountains are small villages. One of those, Ytre Arna, hugs the north shoreline of Sørfjord , South Fjord.
It’s on this mountainside looking down on Ytre Arna that our story resumes.
* * *
Nils and Sonja sat on a blanket on a sunny slope of grass. They had been riding bikes, hiking, and skiing together on Saturday afternoons since they were in grade three. Over the years they gathered lupines and wild berries, exploring and chasing throughout the timberline above their village, Ytre Arna. Since those long-ago schooldays Sonya’s blonde braids had matured to a honey-brown pageboy bob, her cherubic face had transformed to the beauty of a lively, lovely young woman. What had not changed were her wit, curiosity, intelligence, and gentle nature. Nils, on the other hand, looked like a taller version of his boyhood self. Maturity had transformed his teasing, trickster nature into a real talent for numbers, problem-solving, and responsibility. His clever and light-hearted humor still revealed themselves in his eyes and smile.
It surprised no one when Nils and Sonja grew to be more than friends. Saturdays on the mountainside, after skiing, biking, or sharing a picnic lunch, they also shared their hopes and plans for the future. Looking over the red-tiled rooftops at Sørfjord stretching deep inland and back to Bergen and the North Sea, their prospects for happiness seemed unlimited.
Until the German invasion several months earlier. Since then, planning for the future, for them and for their countrymen, involved thoughts far from idyllic.
During those early months of occupation, Sonja had missed many Saturdays, working extra hours of duty at the hospital in the nearby city of Bergen. Her schedule had often doubled after many of the medical staff had been reassigned to serve at German military camps throughout the southwest coast of Norway. Compared to that, working extra shifts was no reason to complain. At least she could return to their village on some weekends to see Nils and help her parents at home.
On this day Sonja was happy to be home on the mountainside, fussing with the lupines she had gathered. She arranged and wrapped them protectively before tucking them into her backpack.
Nils brushed a strand of hair back from Sonja’s face, smiling. Then his expression changed, the look in his eyes suddenly as bleak as a winter storm.
“What is it, Nils,” she asked.
“What do you think?” he muttered. “What is it always?”
“Out of bounds!” Sonja forced a laugh. “You know we’ve agreed not to let the Germans occupy our Saturday afternoons when we are lucky enough to even have them.”
“That’s just it,” Nils spoke quietly, tearing fiercely at the grass with one hand. “As things look now, we may not have any days together. The Germans only get stronger, the Allies are barely holding on. We should have been married in June, and now we’re ending summer still unable to make any plans for a real wedding. They’ve not only stolen our country, they’re stealing our lives, our future!” Nils dropped back on the blanket and pulled his arm across his eyes.
Sonja rested her head on her knees for several minutes. When she finally spoke, her voice trembled. “We agreed in June to wait for the war to end, so that our wedding day could be a true celebration. I know that Hitler will be defeated one day, and we will all be free again. But I admit that my hopes for a swift conclusion to the war have faded. I want us to marry, and I don’t want to wait for the war to end.”
Nils sat up and put his arm around her, brushing a tear from her cheek. “We’ll marry, Sonja, we must! But with travel limited and food rationed, we’d only have a simple ceremony with our two families. That would be enough for me, but you deserve a traditional wedding, a day to remember!”
“The day we wed will be special, no matter when, where, or how it happens, Nils. Let’s go tell Mama and Papa that we’re going ahead with it!”
* * *
In minutes they packed up the rest of their things and began making their way down the rugged trail, trotting alongside their bikes whenever possible. As soon as they reached the gravel road at the edge of the village, they hopped on their bikes and launched a downhill race to Sonja’s family home at breakneck speed, arriving breathless and giggling.
Soon Sonja and Nils found themselves in her family’s tidy, cozy kitchen. There were hugs and tears all around when Sonja’s parents heard the news. For the rest of the afternoon they sat together at the table over many cups of coffee, discussing possibilities and making plans. Family wedding photos were examined and memories plumbed, retelling interesting details of those earlier joyous occasions.
“I want Sonja to have a beautiful wedding day, too,” Nils argued, “but we may as well just have a private service with no guests. Even if we could somehow save or collect the supplies for the almond cakes, smørbrød , wine, and rømmegrøt for guests, no one could even wear their bunad or wave the flag. You know that even on Constitution Day no gatherings or games took place. I’ve heard reports that people who dared to raise the flag at their own doorstep were detained and investigated. We have not been free to fly our own flag since the invasion.”
“Except where those brave resistance fighters hiding in the mountain forests keep raising our dear flag. No matter how often the Germans remove it or search for them in vain, it always ends up flying somewhere again,” chuckled Sonja’s papa, standing at attention and covering his heart with his hand. Everyone at the table responded with wide grins, raising their cups to salute his phantom flag.
Sonja said, “I just had a letter from our cousin in Fana. She attended a wedding in July and said many there wore their bunads without a problem from the Germans. In fact, she said the whole town turned out, with everyone feeling quite smug about their good excuse to show their national pride.”
Mama smiled, fingering the lace trim and fine stitching on the apron covering her lap. “Ja, so now maybe we can show our resistance with needlework as well as with rifles, I suppose.” As the others smiled and offered another toast, Nils stood and walked to the window. There he stared outside, away from the rooftops toward the mountaintops reaching off into the distance.
Sonja followed quietly, resting both hands on his shoulder. “What is it?” she spoke quietly in his ear.
“I should be using my rifle, joining the others to put an end to this war as soon as possible,” he insisted, his jaw clenched as tightly as his fists. “You know I’ve won first place in marksmanship in the Rifle Club contests every year since I was fourteen! And no one skis faster or stronger that I do!”
“No!” Sonja snapped. Then she rested her forehead on his shoulder, took a slow breath, and continued more calmly. “You know I wouldn’t try to stop you without a good reason. Since my brothers Rolf and young Bjørn joined the resistance we have heard nothing form them in months.” Tears were filling her eyes. “You and Knut muststay here. You are the only source of reliable information we have in this area.”
“Anyone can operate a radio,” Nils grumbled.
“But with your job at the bank, you have a reason to communicate with many towns and districts, and you can even secure passes to travel around the country.” Taking his hand, she continued. “And Knut’s work for the railroad allows him to pass and receive messages from here to Oslo and beyond. Your work is vitalto our district, and to all of Norway. You are in the resistance!”
Mama and Papa, well aware of Nils’ frustration, steered the young couple back to the table. Mama poured more coffee and patted Nils on the shoulder. “Son, we’ll make this wedding a time to celebrate, and that will be our resistance to this awful occupation by the enemy”
I featured two titles on my picture book blog: first, a recently-released nonfiction picture book, and another from five years back, both starring a well-recognized canine hero from the First World War. Both profiled Stubby, a stray dog who adopted a a training unit of soldiers and joined them throughout their war experiences.
When I speak to groups, in schools or other gatherings, I often mention that I NEVER intended to write a book with a dog in it. Everyone knows that if a dog is in the story, bad things can happen, to varying degrees.
And yet, once I finally found Mari’s character and voice in my research, she virtually took over the keyboard and insisted that the story was hers. Decades of research and memories of personal stories of resistance from my Norway visits shifted into her focus and, through her eyes, the story poured onto the page.
In fact, at many points we argued. Before we could even begin she insisted on having a dog. She won that argument, and the first book is named for her dog, Odin. Mari’s need for a trusted companion, for a reliable source of love and security and companionship through times of danger and confusion, left me no choice. If you’ve even read the summary of the first book, you know that Mari won that argument, and later ones requiring hard choices involving Odin.
So it feels important to share two versions of Stubby’s stories here, and end with a powerful link regarding memorial sites for military service dogs. Here’s what I posted:
SERGEANT STUBBY is an actual dog who became a mascot and hero during World War I. For many years Stubby’s story faded from history, or remained among adult military historians. Now, in several wonderful ways, Stubby’s story has been shared in kid-friendly picture books. The most recent is STUBBY: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, written and illustrated by Michael Foreman. (Anderson Press)
This is nonfiction with helpful backmatter, including a photo of the actual STUBBY and historic details not told in the body of the text.
Both the imagined casual first-person narration (a suggested version of Corporal Robert Conroy’s voice) and the events portrayed in softened/lightened illustrations allow young readers to focus on Stubby’s energetic and supportive personality rather than on more severe elements of war training and actual war.
Stubby becomes a mascot for Conroy and his company, exceeds every hope or expectation, and even shakes paws with President Wilson. Back matter added small rich details, such as that last one, while freeing the story itself to develop the deep relationship between Stubby and Conroy (and the rest of his team).
The final page makes clear that post-war home life is a big improvement, but also leaves veterans (human and dog) seeking time to find their new place in an old-but-changed world. The end papers are brilliant, as the opening papers carry bootprints into the pages of war, but the final papers include paw prints with the bootprints, heading out of the book and into the future, together.
Stubby and Conroy will certainly raise curious questions from even the youngest audiences. For more detailed (and extensively well-researched) information about Stubby, pick up a previously published nonfiction book for slightly older readers. STUBBY the WAR DOG is written by award-winning author Ann Bausum and is densely illustrated with archival photographs, maps, etc. that enhance the life and facts surrounding Stubby.
The details of Stubby the War Dog (the much-decorated Sergeant Stubby) have made their way into a variety of books for young readers. In this case, the reliable Ann Bausum brings her award-winning research and writing skills to a youth-friendly, photo-rich version of the adult book she wrote on this topic. Using an appealing storytelling tone, Bausum finds both the heart and the power of this war-dog story. Dense with useful (and fascinating) back matter and sources, this is a great choice as anchor reading for middle graders, supplemented by the growing number of simpler picture book approaches to this true story.
Depending on where you live or plan to travel, you might want to save this link to a post,which features active links and other information about some of the many global monuments to war service dogs. Click to take a virtual tour right away, if travel isn’t on your agenda. Then add a stop at the library or bookstore on your next list for errands and pick up these two books. In them you’ll find amazing stories about this remarkable dog.
As Mari insisted, even when the the prospect of including a dog in a dangerous story fills you with dread, the benefits outweigh the costs. In other words, love and loyalty trump fear.