It may only be October 1943, but teenager Frank, along with his childhood friends Stephen and Joseph, have bundled up to go out on the deck of the HMS Forgetmenot, a convoy escort, to chisel as much ice as possible off the deck of the ship. It's not easy task, given the rough sea, the high waves, and the rolling and tossing of the ship. Which is how Frank suddenly lost his balance and found himself falling into the sea. Sure he was a goner, Frank is surprised to wake up back on the ship.
Frank recovers, and eventually, the ship makes it to their destination in Russia, but on the way back to their home port, they are torpedoed, and once again Frank finds himself in the freezing Arctic waters as the HMS Forgetmenot sinks. Picked up by a rescue ship, Frank realizes his friend Joseph is dead, but Stephen, who was in the engine room, has miraculously survived.
Frank and Stephen are given a Survivor's Leave, returning home to Plymouth, England to see their families, and pay their respects to Joseph's father. While there, they receive their orders to report to the HMS Belfast, back on Arctic Convoy duty. And while the HMS Belfast is a larger ship that the HMS Forgetmenot, the trip north to Russia is still filled with fear, anxiety and danger.
The book ends with the Battle of North Cape, the real life battle between the Arctic Convoy and the dreaded Scharnhorst battleship. I said it is a nail-biter and it is right up to the end. Palmer's descriptions of the cold weather and icy waters of the Norwegian Sea, the ice that coated the ship and had to be constantly chiseled away to prevent the ships from getting top heavy and capsizing, were realistic enough to give me chills despite reading it during a heatwave.
But even more realistic than the elements were Frank's thoughts and fears. Frank is a sensitive, conscientious boy, and dealing with a dangerous mission should be enough for a anyone who is still a teen, but he must also deal with worry about his mother alone in Plymouth, grieve for a friend who died while the two friends were not on speaking terms, and his own fears of what could happen. The story is told from Frank's first point of view and I thought Palmer did a great job of giving readers a sense of what it was like to be Frank without overwhelming them with too much tension.
Arctic Star isn't a very long novel, but packs a powerful punch. The Arctic Convoys were such difficult and harrowing missions that an special award called The Arctic Star was created in 2012 for those men who served on what Winston Churchill called "the worst journey in the world." The book is not named for this award, but rather for the North Star that plays a small but important role in Frank's story.
Back matter includes an Author's Note and photographs of men who served on the Arctic Convoys, as well as additional information on the HMS Belfast.