Six years ago I sailed to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. I had chosen to be there and paid for the privilege. It was midsummer and I was on a small cruise ship. I had sailed the Norwegian Sea, the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea previously and so the geography was no surprise to me. And yet as we sailed north and east, I felt remote from my world, cut off from my version of civilisation. And adventurous. Intrepid. Alone.
Imagine, then, what it was like to be a part of an Arctic convoy in a Second World War winter on board a tiny ship with fewer than one hundred sailors. Imagine leaving the Clyde, sailing out around the western side of the Hebrides, passing Iceland, only knowing intellectually that Norway, occupied by Nazi Germany, was far to the east. Imagine turning gradually eastwards along what must have seemed like the top of the world. And imagine that all the while U-boats and fighter planes were waiting to pounce and send you plummeting into an icy grave.
This was a reality for many brave men as they played their part in keeping the USSR supplied with the means to fight Germany and its allies. It is also a fictional reality for Frank, Joseph and Stephen, young naval conscripts from Plymouth. Frank, the latest generation in a family of seafarers; Joseph, grammar school educated and fascinated by Stalin’s USSR; Stephen, the joker and link between the others. They are the protagonists of Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star.
We meet the three teenagers on the deck of HMS Forgetmenot as they chip ice off its frozen surface in the middle of the Norwegian Sea. Tom Palmer immediately plunges his readers into the conditions, evoking the danger and discomfort the three friends feel and the heart-stopping moment when one of them slides inexorably to the edge of the deck and beyond.
The timeline goes back and fore a little, but most of the action takes place over the course of two months and at sea. We see the action through Frank’s eyes and experience his fear of the elements, his bone-aching cold and his panic that he will fail to spot an approaching enemy. But we also share the camaraderie of the three and their varying responses to shore-leave in Murmansk. And, after a cataclysmic event, we can understand that Frank, a boy for whom the sea was a second home, is left storm-tossed with ambivalence about it.
The book ends with a powerful description of the Battle of North Cape as seen from HMS Belfast. Tom Palmer uses eye-witness accounts to recreate the battle to feature his young heroes. In fact this novel rests (but lightly) on a tremendous amount of research, much of it from the Imperial War Museum, and a few of its vast collection of photographs are reproduced here. There are also illustrations by Tom Clohosy Cole that add to the atmosphere. The wraparound cover illustration is particularly wonderful.
I asked particularly for a review copy of this book from Barrington Stoke for many reasons: it features the sea, it travels north and it’s by Tom Palmer. All good reasons in my world. Over the years I have enjoyed reading Tom Palmer’s books set around the First World War, a special interest of mine. They have an immediacy that helps young readers understand that conflict. Here, as he plunges into another lamentable war, he does the same.