Friday, March 13, 2020

22. The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

Compare this to some of the covers below
I was led to understand that this was a real classic WWII POW escape book.  It's weird to me that it took me so long to find it and when I did (at Dark Carnival, of course) it was in a new large format reprint of not great quality.  The printing looked smudged and the cover was not of great quality.  Still, I appreciate Skyhorse Publishing for having reprinted it.  Seems a shame that a book like this would not still be on the shelves in most bookstores.

[Ah, just realized I had already read another book by Eric Williams, Dragoman and it led me to look for The Wooden Horse.]

It is written as fiction in third person, but is basically true.  The author and two others did actually escape from a POW camp by building a tunnel underneath a camp-made vaulting horse.  In the introduction, which I read after I completed the book, he explains how when he first published it right after the war, much of the info fell under the official secrets act, so he had to embellish it and change lots of details.  He since rewrote it several times until this 1978 edition which he says is mostly fact.

It is a really tense book.  The first half is all about them digging the tunnel.  I am kind of claustrophobic.  I don't know if I were in their situation, maybe I would be desperate enough to squeeze into a 100-metre tunnel of sand that was barely wider than my own body, with oxygen constantly running out, the walls and ceiling crumbling, sand everywhere.  I actually had to keep putting it down because it was stressing me out too much to read.

Later, when their tunnel succeeds and they are on the run in Germany, it is also extremely tense, but in a different way.  Posing as French foreign workers, neither of them speak German.  They have forged papers, limited maps and outdated railroad schedules.  They don't know how to act.  And they can trust nobody.  It's nerve-wracking.  Also, really interesting to see war-time Germany from the inside through the eyes of outsiders.

It's a great book and I am glad I read it on the day that schools were announced to be closed for two weeks and people are making runs on toilet paper in the supermarket to combat Covid-19.  The privations of the POW camp (which you read in his intro were actually much worse for their guards thanks to the Red Cross packages the prisoners received) put into perspective the anxiety about not being able to wipe your ass with 2-ply quilted Charmin.




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