The Occupied Garden is a remarkable book and may just have a ready-made audience. There are those with some Dutch blood (like me); those who've nurtured for decades our special Second World War bond with Holland (as the authors point out, "Canadian soldiers helped rebuild houses, town halls, dikes, and bridges, and the bond between liberator and liberated tightened," and more than 7,000 are buried there); those who're simply very interested in the war; and, finally, those who've visited Holland and returned impressed, intrigued, smitten. And then there are those who just like a good story.
Sisters Kristen den Hartog (a well-known Canadian novelist) and Tracy Kasaboski have authored a personal, unsentimental, intensely compelling "memoir" of a working-class, small-town family surviving the horrific Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and, in the early 1950s, emigrating to Canada. They've done so with fine writing and exhaustive research, and with much delight in and, clearly, much love for the family. That's because it's theirs.
- The Occupied Garden: Recovering the Story of a Family in the War-Torn Netherlands, by Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski, McClelland & Stewart, 326 pages, $29.99
The central characters are Gerrit and Cor den Hartog, "Opa" and "Oma," the sisters' grandparents. We first encounter them at the age of 18 in 1927, on a frozen canal, where Gerrit turns "languid figure eights" skating backward, and Cor watches from the side sipping hot anise milk - and their eyes meet. The engagement lasts eight years because of money and parent troubles. They marry in May, 1935, move upstairs into his parents' modest two-storey brick house in Leidschendam, a town east of The Hague with roots in the 14th century (the book would benefit from maps).
They've both been working full-time since the age of 12, and Cor, especially, is deeply religious, "fierce in belief, rather than calmly faithful, like Gerrit." As his father does, Gerrit first puts in the 18-hour days of a market gardener's hired hand, then he acquires his own 2½ acres, "an expanse of black soil to which they entrust their future."
The first child, a girl, Rige, arrives in 1937. As the deadly tensions rise in Europe, as Germany threatens and attacks, as Holland is invaded and slowly sucked under in the occupation's ever-deepening misery, we follow their lives close-up as the gardener and his wife have four more children, all boys, the last in 1944. Gerrit listens to his hidden radio and looks up "regions in his atlas ... gaining a new awareness of his place in the larger world." Later this awareness will make the enormous displacement of a move to Canada imaginable.
The tiny, mundane details of these very ordinary lives are brilliantly interwoven with the colossal events and backwash of all-out war that move the story relentlessly, sometimes breathlessly, forward. (A third component, cleverly running parallel to the den Hartog adventures, is the chronicle of Holland's much-loved royals, led by stout, commanding Queen Wilhelmina. The family escapes to England, and then-princess Juliana and her daughters make their way to Rockcliffe Park, Ottawa, where Prime Minister Mackenzie King duly notes their activities in his fulsome diaries.)
As in a painting by Seurat, the masses ("dots") of information, meticulously build up, slowly, vividly, revealing the many personalities and the devastating times: the ceaseless roundups of Jews (Leidschendam's 26 Jewish citizens never return), the ever-shrinking freedom, the collaboration of some with the Nazis, the intensifying fear and hunger and humiliation and, that so debilitating aspect of war, tedium. And with it all, never diminished, there is the tenacious Dutch resolve to resist, to fight on.
But despair rises inexorably in the final frigid hongerwinter of 1944-45, when families hide their dead to keep their ration coupons; when, with ground-fighting drawing close, searchlights and tracer bullets piercing the night and Allied bombs whistling down, it seems that surely the end of the world has come. And, less than two months before the war's close, bombs strike the gardener's family, too.
Still, in the telling, room is made for many light and smiling touches. In the midst of starvation, "little booklets appeared, explaining how to prepare tulip, daffodil, and crocus bulbs." As stick-thin Cor, her sister and a teen-age neighbour set out into the country on a desperate search for food, "at the top of a hill they climbed onto their bicycles and coasted down, the tiny thrill as welcome as the pale sun that broke through the clouds."
The writers, the daughters of Koos den Hartog, the second-oldest, who was 7 when he lost his left leg below the knee, culled their data from a thin hoard of letters, diary entries, photographs and family lore, from books, archives, websites and museums, and, of course, from minutely, tirelessly, questioning living witnesses. Sometimes, though, they take not-so-shy liberties reporting thoughts, feelings and responses on behalf of some who are long passed away, which could have rung the odd false note. But the authors interpret so harmoniously, are so guided by respect and common sense, that these reconstructed lives just hum with authenticity.
In the Netherlands, there's a huge and ongoing accounting of the Second World War, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres, in fiction and non-fiction, in print and all other media. People can't forget and don't want to. For many (not all) directly affected by war it was the defining experience of life. Den Hartog and Kasaboski, of course, cannot have a notion of that war, and 60 years later, somewhere deep in their story, they wisely observe, "There was simply too much, and so nothing, to say."
In their brief prologue, they note: "Our grandparents rarely spoke of those times. ... So what follows comes not from them but from clues left behind, like ghosts' footprints. ... We were compelled to search out their story when we realized it was disappearing."
If, as some hold, memory is finally all we own, the authors have done their inheritance proud.
Ernest Hillen is the author of The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java and of Small Mercies: A Boy After War, which are being reissued in May.