I recently (via the wonderful world of Twitter) got the opportunity to join in the Transworld publisher’s reading group/historical fiction challenge – namely, to read and review, three newly published books. The first one I chose was Cruel Crossing by Edward Stourton : an excellent read, so much so that I passed the book on immediately to Helen Carey, WW2 novelist. The review below represents our joint view of the book. Recommended reading.
Cruel Crossing purports to be about one of the routes across the Pyrenees from France used by refugees escaping from Hitler during the Second World War, but it is, in fact, about much more than that. Edward Stourton uses the individual stories of heroism, endurance and courage of certain individuals who crossed or attempted to cross from France into the relative safety of Spain via the ‘Chemin de la Liberté’, as it became known, to illustrate a much bigger picture – that of the extraordinary turmoil and cruelty rife in France as the Nazis tightened their grip Western Europe. The book explores not so much the details of cruel, gruelling, escapes across the treacherous Pyrenees but more the vicious cruelty, treachery and prejudice of people and regimes that made those escapes necessary.
The by-line of the book is ‘Escaping Hitler across the Pyrenees,’ but in fact some of the most revelatory parts of the book are the descriptions of the divisions among the French themselves, on the one hand the almost unbelievable cruelty both at an institutional and individual level and on the other the extraordinary courage and heroism of those helping and supporting the escape attempts.
Cruel Crossing is by no means definitive, nor does it claim to be, there were other escape routes both by land and by sea, in this area and elsewhere. But by focussing on just a few of the stories in that small corner of south-west France Edward Stourton gives us an insight into the horrors that were in store for Jews, shot-down Allied airmen, prisoners of war, secret agents, anti-fascists, liberals, communists, and countless others who just happened to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time in this and in other parts of Europe, and indeed the world.
It is a compelling read, Edward Stourton has chosen his stories well, individually they are exciting, shocking, tragic and heart warming. He handles his material with sympathy and compassion. His descriptions of the pilgrims on the annual treks of remembrance are poignant, reminding us that this period of history is gradually edging out of living memory. The reader is left with a sense of bewilderment that human beings are capable of such extremes of behaviour, and a profound sense of gratitude for our current freedoms.