The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.
The One Man and The Saboteur, the latest books of Andrew Gross, are a departure from his usual writing genre. Instead of writing thrillers with storylines of criminal activity he has ventured into the historical novel field. Yet, his writing style has not completely changed with these two plots in that they both are thrilling and gripping. The characters must find solutions to their dilemma, and the stories affect the readers’ heart.
The One Man, released last year with the paperback version coming out soon,is a story about guilt, survival, and heroism. Yet, having the main setting in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp it is unavoidable to touch on the atrocities, the fatalistic feeling, and the helplessness of those interned. The title is taken right out of Jewish law, a passage from the Mishnah Sanhedrin, “It was for this reason that man was first created as one person, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world, and any who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.” Gross explores how one man is worthy of being saved over others. But as the plot progresses readers will question who shall be saved and who shall die?
Gross had the idea, from his father-in-law’s life. “He came here from Poland in April 1939. As it turned out, he was the only member of his family to survive the war. In fact, he never learned the fate of any of the family that was left behind. Like a lot of survivors, he never talked at all about his family or even about his life back in Poland before he left. It was just too painful. In 1941, after America entered the war, my father-in-law signed up to serve his new country, and because of his facility with languages, was placed in the Intelligence corps, never divulging a word of what his role was there. During his whole life he seemed to carry around a weight of guilt and regret, despite his successes here, and everyone pressed him to find out just what was behind it. In some ways, I set out to write the story I thought my father-in-law might tell.”
The three main characters are extraordinarily written. Readers will feel the same emotions of fear, hatred, and a desire to be courageous. Dr. Alfred Mendl is the renowned electromagnetic physicist whose research and knowledge is the key to America’s secret efforts to build an atomic bomb. The problem is that he and his family are now trapped in Auschwitz. The OSS, the predecessor to the CIA, had devised a plan to get him out. A desk-bound Jewish intelligence officer, Nathan Blum, who escaped from Nazi-overrun Poland, is recruited for a near suicidal mission, to sneak into Auschwitz to rescue Mendl in 72 hours. Mendl is smart enough to realize his days are numbered and he wants to up the ante so that the allies will get this vital information. Possessing an astonishing memory, Leo, a sixteen-year-old boy, is recruited by Mendl, who hopes to preserve his work, by having him memorize the vast amount of scientific knowledge.
The scenes with Greta Ackermann, the wife of the Assistant Gestapo are extremely powerful. She represents the conscience of the readers. She is isolated and imprisoned, unable to do anything or stop the brutality around her. A thought provoking quote by her shows how those suffering under the Nazis were not numbers, but individual human beings. “They were people. Your precious numbers… Not digits. They were mothers. Husbands. Little children. They had lives. Hopes. Just like we did once. People.”
Not only readers, but the author also felt he was traveling back in time to the Holocaust. “As a writer we have life and death power over our characters’ survival. I am the one to choose the settings, the time and the place, what language they speak, the different variables. But when you write a book of this kind, it’s not like reading one. You’re not an observer. So to me it was like having to go through something I’d only read about, both a life affirming and an invigorating process.”
The One Man was heartbreaking, inspiring, and realistic. But this was not the only first rate historical thriller novel Gross has written. The second of the World War II books, released this August, The Saboteur also has these qualities. Each story has daring missions, characters who were brave, and plots that showed how the Nazis must be stopped at any cost in obtaining a nuclear bomb first.
The Saboteur is more historical than fiction, based strongly on actual raids during World War II in Vemork, Norway. A secret committee called the SOE (Special Operations Executive) was formed, in England, to deal with the threat at the Norsk plant, the Nazis production of “heavy water,” critical to making an atomic bomb. An earlier attempt resulted in the loss of forty elite men, but the allies knew this danger had to be eliminated. The critical mission depended on six resistance fighters parachuting into Norway, penetrating the plant, demolishing the heavy water supply, and destroying the means of its production. The plot is tension filled, as readers understand that the allies will stop at nothing to make sure the Germans do not have the means to make the bomb, even if it means a secondary raid is necessary.
Gross knew of the story from “doing the research for The One Man. I came across information on this actual daring raid during WWII. I knew I had to write about it. The actual raids themselves were very realistic; the fiction came in when I wrote the time periods between them, inventing a background history for the characters.”
The setting acts as a major supporting character, both antagonist and protagonist. The plant is set atop unscalable cliffs with an impenetrable gorge, connected by a single suspension bridge, and is under constant heavy guard. Both the surrounding terrain and the weather were unforgiving. Wind gusts could drag a man off his feet, cold and freezing snow with zero visibility, and a ridge drop of fifty feet covered by rocks and boulders. Yet, this terrain and weather would end up eliminating their tracks and provided cover from Nazi patrols.
With these books it is apparent that Gross has a knack for writing captivating quotes. In his latest there are two that stand out and show the courage of the allies and the depravity of the Nazis. The Saboteur has a quote that could apply to the books heroes, “A true man is a man who goes on till he can go no farther, and then goes twice as far.” The other quote from this latest shows how the Germans “just took things. Ground them up in its indifferent jaw, like a tank running over friend and foe alike, spitting them back out as memories.” The one aspect they could not take was someone’s memories of a life before the atrocities.
What link both books, according to Gross are “The humanity of man and the inhumanity of the Nazis. I wanted to maintain that balance, between brutality and death, as well as heroism. The stories tap into some universal quality of the human spirit. Both heroes were willing to put their life on the line for a nearly impossible mission with a ticking clock that is winding down, and wanted to measure up to their fathers expectations.”