BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, May 2017
In the early hours of April 9, 1940, King Haakon VII of Norway was awakened by an aide shouting, “Majesty, we are at war!” The frantic and desperate flight of the Norwegian king and his government into snow-clad mountains and eventually to London is just one of the spellbinding stories in Lynne Olson’s masterful account of England in World War II, Last Hope Island.
Olson, a former White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, has written three previous books about World War II, and she brings both a journalist’s eye and a novelist’s command of character and setting to this subject. Here, in addition to King Haakon, she brings to life the indomitable Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who kept her people’s spirits up through her energetic BBC broadcasts. Olson details the contributions of Polish pilots to the RAF and shows how courageous, ordinary Europeans participated in resistance efforts and in secret escape networks to guide downed pilots back to England. Olson does not shy away from a sharp critique of England’s SOE, the Special Operations Executive, a rival organization to MI6. Inept SOE officials failed to follow their own security protocols, even after radio operators tried desperately to communicate that their networks had been compromised. In a particular case in the Netherlands, this resulted in the tragic death of agents who were nabbed by the Germans immediately upon parachuting into a dark field.
For American readers inclined to begin their World War II reading after U.S. entry into the conflict, Last Hope Island opens a fascinating trove of stories, characters and facts. The final chapters deal with postwar Europe. In this way, Olson’s book, 10 years in the making, not only helps illuminate the past but also serves as an insightful backdrop for today’s discussion of the future of 21st-century European alliances.