“He found the young man lying in the snow, his battered body pushed deep under the brambles at the bottom of a ravine. If it had not been for the sound of the car door slamming, Hans Gunnerson would never have found him.”
This is how my new WW II novel, The Jøssing Affair, opens, just as I dreamed it nearly twenty-five years ago. After I told a friend about it, she said write it down. I did. She loved it and said to do more. I never had written a novel before. Worse, I knew nothing about Norway during WW II beyond Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down and some Kirk Douglas movie. But the man in the snow and some long ago plot I had tallied with kept coming back. My historian instincts kicked in. I went to the library.
Some Basic Things to Know about Norway in 1940
- With 3 million people, smallest country population-wise in Europe; Berlin was bigger
- Fishing and maritime leading industries, rich fisheries in the north
- Rural communities on West Coast tied together by coastal ferry; often had own dialects, one phone to fjord village or electricity. Massive fjell (high plateau) down the center of country.
- Trondheim, Bergen and Oslo leading centers of cultural and education; all these cities attacked by Germans in a single day, April 9, 1940.
Looking for Norway in WW II
When researching a subject, it’s always good to read an overview of the times and then explore the bibliography in the back. The first book I discovered was a collections of stories about occupied Norway, Blood on the Midnight Sun. It was a gold mine leading me to four story strands for my novel: the Shetland Bus, the razing of the little fishing village, Televåg, the Minister for the Deaf in Norway, pastor Conrad Bonnevie-Svendsen, and what would be my villain, Henry Oliver Rinnan, Norway’s number two war criminal. The story began to flow. With no internet, I ordered books through inter-library. And with no computer, I wrote it by hand for the first two years.
An exceptional find was two volumes of Norway, published by Royal Naval Intelligence Division. This Geographic Handbook was totally classified during the war as it was designed for agents going to Norway. Found on a shelf at my local university library, the handbooks cover culture, history and an amazing array of train schedules, maps, photographs that helped me to create an authentic background to my intelligence agent in my story. It was at this geographic unit that author Ian Fleming worked for a while.
Another valuable find were members of the Norwegian Men’s Choir in my area. All the men and their wives whom I interviewed had lived in occupied Norway as young 20 year-olds. Their experiences with rationing, daily life under the Germans and local NS (Norwegian Nazi Party), forced labor, tragic incidents in their towns and villages and any other important event lent another layer of authenticity.
One of my favorite things I learned about Norway was about the cars that ran on wood or charcoal. (knottgenerator) Only Germans or member of the NS could have gasoline. One interviewee told me how they would go to the local gas station and pick up bags of charcoal or wood to put into the furnace on the back on their vehicle. Using this ingenious method, a car could run at about 30-40 miles an hour and get about 20 miles to a bag (I forgot the correct estimate).
I was also fascinated with the role Conrad Bonnevie-Svendsen, the minister to the deaf, played in the resistance. He would travel around the country visiting the various deaf schools and churches, then hold secret meetings with members high in the resistance. This was a lucky break for my main character, intelligence agent Tore Haugland, who is posing as a deaf fisherman. There is a backstory that ties him to Bonnevie-Svendsen and the Deaf Church. Of course, I had to understand what deaf culture was like in Norway. A letter from the head priest for the deaf introduced me to the school and someone who knew Conrad. Hearing impaired Norwegians sign with a system based on ASL, only they have 29 letters in their alphabet. Today, the schools are very active around the country.
Finally, there is the Shetland Bus. After the heavy water raid, this organization is one of the most celebrated operations in Norway’s WWII history. Operating under the cover of dark during winter, the Shetland Bus initially was a collection of fishing boats going back and forth between Norway and the Shetland Islands. It ran so regularly that it got its name Shetland Bus. It was dangerous work not only for transporting arms and agents, but the storms that were common in the North Sea. In 1943, the Norwegian government received three submarine chasers –the Hitra, Vegra and Hessa. Working with a curator at Resistance Museum in Oslo, I was able to get timetables of the boats coming to Western Norway to tie in with the time line of my novel.
Today, there is one boat left, the restored MV Hitra. The Shetland Bus remains today one of the great adventure and heroic stories of WW II.
Learning to Be Patient
The Jøssing Affair is my first novel. I learned how to write a novel, query it, pitch it and send it out into the world. It won awards, got full reads and high interest, but there was always some reason not to take it on. In many ways, I’m glad that it is my third published novel because I know how to care for it and get into the right hands. When it launched at Village Books on April 9th (76th anniversary of the German invasion of Norway), there were people crying in the audience. I’m not sure if that is a good thing, (though someone told me that it was) but when I heard that, I knew that I touched readers. It’s very rewarding when someone writes to tell me that they recommended Jøssing to their book club because the novel is the most authentic thing they have read about WWII in Norway as they experienced it.
What better tribute could an author ask for?
J. L. Oakley, May 16, 2016