Review of The Grand Escape: The Greatest Prison Breakout of the 20th Century

The Grand Escape: The Greatest Prison Breakout of the 20th Century
by Neal Bascomb
Middle School, High School    Levine/Scholastic Focus/Scholastic    276 pp.
9/18    978-1-338-14034-7    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-14035-4    $11.99 

Bascomb follows his two previous WWII histories for young adults (The Nazi Hunters, rev. 9/13; Sabotage, rev. 7/16) with another gripping work of narrative nonfiction, this time focusing on a small group of WWI prisoners of war and their astounding efforts to tunnel out of Germany’s Holzminden prison camp, a place “established to hold the most troublesome Allied officers in Germany.” The 1918 breakout, “the greatest escape of the war,” provided valuable lessons for subsequent training of WWII troops in “principles of evasion and escape.” The book’s first nine chapters introduce the masterminds and key players and follow the often-circuitous routes that brought each to Holzminden. Plentiful black-and-white archival photos and maps and clear diagrams of the prison camp support Bascomb’s meticulously researched, detailed text. Once the tunneling begins in earnest, Bascomb’s vivid prose puts readers in the cramped, dank, rat-infested tunnel with claustrophobic immediacy: “Blain clawed the dirt to drag himself forward. Every so often, a rat scurried across his back or stared him straight in the eye…And the air…there was never enough to fill his lungs.” In addition to the threat of being buried alive, the team faced countless obstacles both in the tunnel and out; the 150-mile trek to the Dutch border was planned with as much precision as the tunnel engineering. A helpful “List of Participants” precedes the main narrative, and a list of the twenty-nine prisoners (both the ten who succeeded and the nineteen who didn’t) is appended. Bascomb’s “Sources and Acknowledgements” section offers insight into his exhaustive research; also appended are an extensive bibliography, chapter-by-chapter notes, and an index.

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Kitty Flynn
Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.
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