Book Review: The Resistance Girl by Mandy Robotham – a gripping read about a less-documented corner of the war

I’ve read a few novels about World War Two – heart-breaking stories for the most part about those who served, POWs and Concentration Camps, Intelligence Officers sent behind enemy lines and so on. But they’ve mostly been about the main players: France, Britain and Germany. I knew next to nothing about how the war affected Norway and this book was quite an eye-opener.

The resistance girl of the title is Rumi Orlstad. We meet her at a Bergen dockside railing at the war which has taken her fiancé. Magnus was lost at sea during his first voyage with the Shetland bus. I’d come across the bus in other books – the fleet of 30 odd fishing boats that ferried secret service agents and refugees between Sheltand and Norway – since 1940 under German occupation. The bus supported the Norwegian resistance, bringing supplies and instructors as well as assisting with sabotage.

Rumi’s father and step-brother help with the bus, and Rumi, motherless and alone, helps with the fishing business. It’s November, so there’s snow when she’s sent to bring two new British officers to a safe-house, both having parachuted into nearby countryside. She’s cross when she has to cut down Jens Parkes from the tree that’s caught his parachute, but luckily he can ski. Still reeling from her loss, they form an uneasy alliance. At least being half Norwegian, Jens looks the part and can blend in, hiding his radio transmitter among the clothing he collects for refugees – his cover.

While Jens gets on with supporting the cause, Rumi discovers her best friend has been sent to Lebensborn, one of many maternity camps devised by Himmler to produce an ideal Aryan race. It was felt that Norwegians – tall, blond and fair – had all the right attributes and so German officers stationed in Norway were encouraged to engage with young Norwegian women – a few married them and whisked them off to Germany. But many of these girls were just taken advantage off, like Rumi’s friend Anya, their babies planned for childless German couples.

This is where I found the book particularly interesting. Part of the narration is from the point of view of a housekeeper so it’s a bit like a fly-on-the-wall account. The housekeeper worked for the family that owned the house before the Germans requisitioned it – like so many larger properties – and she has no idea about what it’s to be used for. Little by little her fears grow as it all begins to make sense. The dormitories and the cots, the German midwives, the guards, the frightened young women.

How Rumi tries to help her friend forms a large part of the book, as well as her interactions with Jens and his dangerous missions. There are some excellent supporting characters too. The sinister Lothar Sellig – a German officer for the Abwehr – who keeps turning up like a bad penny, on his quest to clamp down on the resistance; Rumi’s neighbour Marjit who is like a mother figure to Rumi and having been a nurse during WWI is almost as determined and fearless as Rumi. She has a surprising connection with Jens.

Mandy Robotham has done plenty of research to bring the city of Bergen to life, its cafés and fishing industry, as well as the domestic settings, the traditional knitting and Norwegian meals. The horrors of what Norway endured under enemy occupation are described too: the fear of living alongside the enemy, the reprisals against insurrection. Himmler’s Lebensborn project seems particularly sinister, giving the novel some heft and the story builds towards a tense and exciting ending.

The Resistance Girl is a terrific story and would appeal to readers who have enjoyed Kate Quinn’s wartime novels. I enjoyed this book as an e-audiobook and the reader – Antonia Beamish – made the characters come alive and handled the Norwegian names like a native. Or so it seemed to me. I’ll be hunting out more by Mandy Robotham – this novel gets a four out of five from me.

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