Review: “The Skipper’s Dog’s Called Stalin” by David Black. Thomas & Mercer.

I don’t often read stories of war; my preference tends toward classic mysteries. I was drawn to this book from the description–the story begins in spring, 1941–and so did I. My early childhood is filled with memories of how my family dealt with the experiences of World War II. Three uncles served in the war–in the South Pacific, England, and Australia–while my father, over-age for military service, filled an essential civilian position in the production of reinforcing steel for battleships. My mother opened our home to visiting servicemen who were buddies of her two younger brothers. But I soon found that this book relates a very different experience, and from a different perspective.

The unfolding saga of young Harry Gilmore, a Scotsman not yet twenty-one that duty calls to unforeseen responsibilities, is engrossing and vividly told, with characters that bring a human dimension to the military events and present a European view of the war that we in America do not generally contemplate.  Despite the depiction of perilous times, the characters we meet bring a flavor of everyday life to the extraordinary events–such as the ship’s dog (indeed named Stalin) and a lively young Creole named Lydia who brings a short-lived but memorable romantic experience to Harry.

Harry, a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, finds himself serving as Liaison Officer (LO) on the Free French submarine Radegonde. His Skipper on this assignment is Gil Syvret, a Lieutenant de Vaisseau, who acquired the status of Captain of the submarine when his former commanding officer found it expedient to disappear just as the Royal Navy was taking over the French submarine after the installation of the Vichy government in France. At first, it is an uneasy alliance between Harry and the captain and crew of the Radegonde. The politics of the situation are complicated by Harry’s dual relationship as LO to Syvret and his responsibilities to the Royal Navy. It is a delicate and ill-defined line that Harry learns to walk, while meantime encountering extraordinary challenges as the ship and crew carry out their assignments.

When the ship is ordered to Halifax, Nova Scotia, along the way something goes seriously awry with the mine laying equipment of the Radegonde, and ultimately it is Harry who undertakes the extremely daunting task of remedying this potentially lethal problem. The author’s knowledge enables him to render the particulars of this complicated task understandable to the reader without his submarine, sea-going experience.

An epic journey unfolds in these pages: the Radegonde’s voyage ranges from Scotland to Nova Scotia and on to Martinique. The story is exciting, hazardous, heartwarming, scary, and brilliantly told. The author weaves the volatile political status of ship and crew with the activities they are directed to undertake and the consequences of those actions. We learn a lot about the life of a submariner, how the crew copes when things go radically wrong. We learn of heroic efforts by dedicated men, how they relate to one another in the midst of trying times, and how their relationships are affected by their shared experiences.

This is a virtuoso performance of storytelling that captures and holds our interest.

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