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Nonfiction Review: Tunnel 29 by Helena Merriman

Title: Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall
Author: Helena Merriman
Year published: 2021
Category: Adult nonfiction
Pages: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location: (my 2022 Google Reading map)Germany

SummaryIn the summer of 1962, a young student named Joachim Rudolph dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall. Waiting on the other side in East Berlin were dozens of men, women, and children—all willing to risk everything to escape.

From the award-winning creator of the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 podcast, Tunnel 29 is the true story of this most remarkable Cold War rescue mission. Drawing on interviews with the survivors and Stasi files, Helena Merriman brilliantly reveals the stranger-than-fiction story of the ingenious group of student-diggers, the glamorous red-haired messenger, the Stasi spy who threatened the whole enterprise, and the love story that became its surprising epilogue.
Tunnel 29 was also the first made-for-TV event of its kind; it was funded by NBC, who wanted to film an escape in real time. Their documentary—which was nearly blocked from airing by the Kennedy administration, which wanted to control the media during the Cold War—revolutionized TV journalism.

Review: I'd heard good things about this story of triumph, survival, and heroism so was looking forward to reading it and I was not disappointed. Merriman writes a good narrative nonfiction story that absorbs the reader from page one.

I lived in Germany (and Austria) during my junior year in college (1985-86) and spent time in West Berlin. Traveling to East Berlin for a day was an amazing experience; to see the stark difference between the two cities, to wander the grey streets, to see a stunning ballet performance, and to see the difference between the people of East and West Berlin was profound.

This book is so tense in places; I was worried helpers and escapees would get caught, imprisoned, or tortured (be rest assured, it turns out the Stasi didn't torture). This is not a fictionalized feel good version of tunneling under the Berlin Wall; it's real life where not everyone is safe, not everyone escapes, people are shot and imprisoned. But there are acts of compassion and heroism throughout with stories of successful escapes. 

I liked that the author included photographs of the people, artifacts, and tunnels, which helped me to have an even better connection to the "characters" in this harrowing tale. I am also impressed that she looked through so many Stasi files so that the reader gets both sides of the experience. We get to read about the perspectives of diggers, escapees, and the Stasi, making for a full read.

My brother in England listened to the BBC podcast (also done by the author) and said it's really good.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Nonfiction--book is tied to a podcast ("Tunnel 29" by BBC)

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