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Book Bites: Savage Will, by Timothy M. Gay

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If I were to pick one historical period which I’m not at all, not in the least, not even remotely interested in, it would be World War II. Bo-oh-oh-ring!

(That said, I realise that it was a defining epoch and I acknowledge and commend the efforts of those who fought and died in the mayhem, which would include members of my own family.)

Which is why, when I was graciously bestowed a copy of Timothy M. Gay’s Savage Will: The Daring Escape of Americans Trapped Behind Nazi Lines by my friend Cam, I was at somewhat of a loss. Lacking any reasonable excuse not to plunge in, however, I gingerly clicked through to the first page (mine is a Kindle world) and slowly started reading. One week later and with the book tucked away into my ‘Finished Reading’ list, I can tell you that I have no regrets, rather the contrary.

Savage Will starts off from a great premise: a fascinating true story of endurance and comradeship. When a plane full of American nurses and medics crash-landed among the snarling mountains of Nazi-occupied Albania in the autumn of 1943, few people would have given the marooned militaries much chance of survival. Alone, in the middle of an unknown land, surrounded by enemy forces, without any food or equipment, they were quite literally in a death trap. And yet, with the help of local partisans and thanks to a boost by both the American and British intelligence services, the crew made their way out of the mountains, across the sea to Italy, and finally – miraculously – back home, without so much as a scratch.

Despite having received some level of publicity at the time (a couple of newspaper articles and even a sexified comic strip), the story lay dormant for years afterwards. Some memoirs managed to make it into the light in the 1960s and then, in May 2013, a comprehensive recounting of the events was published by former National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine editor, Cate Lineberry, under the headingThe Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines.

(I cannot imagine what Mr. Gay must have been thinking when Ms. Lineberry’s book came out, only four months prior to the publication of his own telling of the story. For the sake of comparison, I had actually wanted to read Ms. LIneberry’s book as well, but regret to say that it failed to grab me as much as Mr. Gay’s did.)

Mr. Gay really manages to bring the story to life. Through his brilliantly told and meticulously researched account, you get a chance to really bond with the characters, experience the perils of a cold Albanian winter and the incredible generosity and bravery of the Albanian people, delve into the complexities of Albanian history and the delicate (yet sometimes gung-ho) workings of WWII American and British intelligence. I was pleasantly surprised to find this book both an engagingly entertaining and thoroughly instructive read.

That's Cam, not me. I'm much less blonde and much less pretty!

That’s Cam, not me. I’m much less blonde and much less pretty!

Now, you might ask yourself why my friend gave me the book in the first place, and why I proceeded to read it despite my initial reservations. Well! You’d be digging for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, because Cameron Howard actually did the research for this book! (Ah, the warm glow of second-hand fame, it’s glorious.) Cam, you should know, is an excellent writer in her own right and an expert on all things relating to Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. (Mind you, she’s got a university degree in that field!) She spends her days in the company of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, and has the scoop on all the backstage stories of your favourite classic movies. You can read her old Hollywood movie reviews right here!

As it happens, there are a couple of Hollywood related tidbits in Savage Will, as well, which I suspect are Cam’s work. My favourite of all is a paragraph in the Epilogue, which is a tongue-in-cheek reimagination of the story à la Hollywood:

There should have been a 1947 Warner Brothers blockbuster called Escape from Albania directed by the great Michael Curtiz. He would have depicted the C-53’s crash-landing in the same wonderfully cheesy way he shot the getaway plane zooming over the murky airdrome in Casablanca.

Studio head Jack Warner would have arranged for Barbara Stanwyck to play Agnes Jensen. Cary Grant would have played Lieutenant Garry Duffy, of course, complete with an over-the-top Yorkshire accent. Anthony Quinn would have played Hasan, his handlebar mustache stretching from one ear to the other. Quinn would have used Hasan’s verbal tic “Never mind!” to great comedic effect. Claude Rains, a Curtiz favourite, would have mastered a Balkan accent and portrayed the oily Steffa to perfection.

Hollywood would have changed the story to include a furtive romance between Jens and Duffy. The movie would have ended with violins surging as Stanwyck and Grant share a final salty kiss in Bari, with Garry/Cary vowing to return to harm’s way to serve the cause of freedom and Jens/Babs purring that she’ll never forget him.

Hollywood stories are glamorous and enticing. But oftentimes, and especially when well told, the real life ones are heaps better.

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