Wyatt (A Small Town’s Sacrifices, 2012, etc.) recounts the remarkable life of a Belgian patriot in this biography.
At the opening of this book, 10-year-old Josse Flasschoen attends a military parade with his family in 1901. At the sight of the soldiers on horseback, he declares to his mother, “I am proud to be a Belgian!” Soon afterward, he gets in a minor tussle with a policeman who used too much force while trying to keep spectators off the street. This strong sense of patriotism and intolerance for injustice remained with Flasschoen throughout his life. The biography’s first section examines its subject’s time in the Belgian Congo; the second looks at his involvement in World War II; and the third considers his legacy. At 20, Flasschoen was sent by the Belgian government to the newly acquired colony in the Belgian Congo. There, he established a successful palm oil plantation and gained the respect of many native people, whom he deeply respected, as well. They gave him the playful tribal moniker “Ndekendek”: “the man who runs like a bird.” Later, the palm oil trade slumped, and Josse and his family returned to Belgium in 1933. As World War II grew closer, Flasschoen worked undercover for French intelligence, investigating German invasion plans. On May 10, 1940, German planes filled the skies above Brussels, and Flasschoen knew that his life would be irrevocably changed. Overall, this is a complex, richly detailed story—a biography that’s as captivating as historical fiction. The author shows rare skill at evocatively describing settings in very few words: “The heat was unbearable, especially around the noon hour and early afternoon….It was also when flies fiercely buzzed around people, black or white, and the animals.” He also creates penetrating psychological profiles of various figures, and he provides well-researched historical data. The archival photographs included throughout the text bring the story even further to life. Anyone with an interest in early-20th-century European history, or World War II in particular, will relish this book.
A masterful, beguiling account of an extraordinary man.