SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read

Paul Read


The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War is the first book in the Forgotten Stories from Spain series by Paul Read, giving readers a chance to learn tales of the ‘bravery, humanity and vision’ which existed in 1930’s Spain. But never fear – there is no need to have a great understanding of the time period, as this book caters to both seasoned and new readers of the subject. The book leaps into the time period with a prologue outlining Spain during the war for anyone in need of background details.

This book is the story of Canadian Norman Bethune, a man passionate about public healthcare and social justice. Around 1600 Canadians joined the fight in Spain as volunteers during the war. Bethune started his time in Madrid, noted for both his work, and his fondness of women, drinking and criticism of the regimes operating during that time. Like George Orwell in Barcelona, Bethune became ‘known’ to the Communists and their strict rules, only to have this backfire against him later on in his tour of duty.

The Andalucian city of Malaga, deep in southern Spain, was suffering heavily. The ancient city had a massive disparity in land and wealth, and looked forward to revolution in 1931 at the start of the Second Spanish Republic, but had become tired of waiting for change when war broke out in 1936. But by February 1937, Franco and his troops, with help from the Italians, were advancing fast on the poor city with little way of defending itself. The people had two choices – run or die. People decided to walk the 200km to Almeria and potential safety – not an easy feat with children, elderly, no food or supplies, and carrying everything dear to them.

Along the road, the ‘Carretera de la Muerte’, or Highway of Death, there was only one hope against the bombing, shooters and endless sun. Norman Bethune was the only soul keen enough to do something about the people and their desperate need for help. While thousands died, Bethune had a simple yet brave plan to help the people of Malaga. The book tells of the plan and of what greeted everyone in Almeria, and of Bethune’s escape from Spain after his daring plot. The book also goes on to tell the stories of Bethune’s time in China, and who does and doesn’t remember his work today.

The author uses a fast, smooth, no-nonsense style to recall this forgotten tale, peppering the story with important details, and uses interviews with survivors, and information on how a large percentage of Spain doesn’t know their own history. This book is an easy read, giving people a short yet important insight to a man whose bravery still needs to be shared. The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War is a terrific opening for the Forgotten Stories from Spain series for anyone to enjoy.

Next week I will review the second book in the series Forgotten Stories from Spain: 1984 and the Spanish Civil War

You can find more about Paul Read on his fantastic website – Speaking of Spain