Arctic Star is rooted in the true story of the Arctic convoys of the Second World War. Tom Palmer has tackled a subject of unimaginable loss, endurance and bravery and succeeded in writing a book that deserves a place in every single school classroom and library.
Set in the winter of 1943 as convoys sailed to Russia to deliver supplies to support our allies in the war against Nazi Germany, Arctic Star follows three young Royal Navy recruits on their first mission. Frank, Joseph and Stephen have been friends from childhood, their lives centred on the naval city of Plymouth. The three of them share a bond that runs deep and together they face the treacherous seas, the freezing temperatures and the ever present fear of enemy attack. Their lives will be altered irrevocably by their experiences.
Not a single word is wasted in this tense, compelling and moving story. The first chapter is both shocking and exciting and I defy any reader “giving this a try” not to turn on to chapter two. Tom Palmer ensures that you are instantly transported into the story itself without preamble or a slow build up and from the opening page on the reader is propelled into an absorbing and moving drama.
The three boys at the heart of the story are quite different in character but each is likeable in their own way and their relationship with each other feels authentic. Stephen, with his black humour, coping with every dreadful situation with a joke and a laugh, is the glue holding the trio together in some ways but I warmed to all three; Frank coping with his fear, which was palpable at times and idealistic Joseph full of hope and dreams for a fairer world. The friendship and the youth of these boys highlights the horror of their situation and it is almost impossible to imagine how men at the time coped with both the physical demands of their situation plus the fear of imminent attack by both sea and air.
Tom Palmer’s meticulous research is evident in the detail and children will learn so much from this, as did I. The inclusion of the hot chocolate drink, kye, made by forcing a steam hose through a block of chocolate, the games played by the sailors, the ship’s cat and the clothing and sleeping arrangements all of this provides a vivid picture of what life was truly like for the sailors. Skilful writing conveys both the dreadful conditions, the seascape and the weather but also the emotions experienced by these young men. We witness the pride and the sense of duty but also the frustrations and above all else the fear. By acknowledging this fear the book actually ensures that the reader is more aware of the immense bravery shown and the great debt we owe the generation who endured this experience.
Arctic Star would be an excellent class read for many reasons. The story is an engrossing one in itself but also features an important part of our history and deserves an examination of some of the points raised by Tom Palmer. The impact of war on individuals, families and nations, the politics involved, the development of Europe, the role of Russia in the war and our relationship with the country now, all of these aspects for discussion and learning would be prompted by this thoughtful book. As I read I also appreciated the sheer scale of the location too; the description of the stunning aurora borealis alongside the drama and death created by man is poignant.
This is a special book and one I am glad that I have read. As with After the War Tom Palmer has treated the subject and the brave people who inspired the story with respect but he also treats his young audience with respect. He never shirks from telling children the truth about the complexities and the impact of war but he always describes it in a way that is appropriate for them to handle.
One final world of appreciation for the publishers, Barrington Stoke, who have ensured that this book is an excellent and attractive package. The cover by Tom Clohosy Cole is stunning and the book is illustrated throughout by a black and white picture of the convoy running across the bottom of the pages. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, to whom the book is dedicated, there is a map provided of the route and photos of the real life sailors of the time. The author’s notes at the end provide helpful information and ideas of where to find out more detail.
I should like to thank Tom Palmer for my copy of Arctic Star which I will treasure. The book is published on 6th May and is available at all good bookshops or online via bookshop.org.uk
There are a range of excellent resources on Tom Palmer’s website to support the book including a preview of the first chapter, cover prediction worksheets, a lesson plan and a trailer.
Finally, a personal postscript. This book had such an impact on me that I mentioned it to my Dad, aged 90 last weekend, and asked what he knew about the Arctic convoys. It was hell, he said. He then went on to say that when he joined the merchant navy at the end of 1945 they treated those men who had survived the convoys with great respect. However the piece of information that most surprised me was that my Great Uncle Ronnie, who I knew had taken part in the D-Day Landings, also endured the Arctic convoys. Thanks to Tom Palmer and his excellent and enlightening book I am now off to research further. Thank you, Tom!