Posthumous love letter to the author’s mother.
Prolific Dutch-born novelist de Hartog (The Outer Buoy: A Story of the Ultimate Voyage, 1994, etc.), who died in 2002, tells the story of a quiet, self-effacingly heroic woman in prose to match. (He never even tells us his mother’s name.) She was in her early 20s when she met and married Arnold de Hartog, a Protestant pastor and theologian two decades her senior who is still remembered for his anti-Nazi agitation and a speech he made in support of the Jews just before the outbreak of World War II. When he died in 1938, two years before the Nazi invasion of Holland, the family was thrown into chaos. Jan’s mother was visiting his older brother in the Dutch East Indies, which was soon captured by the Japanese. It was in an internment camp that the woman who had always seemed to exist to support her fiery husband finally came into her own, displaying a steely strength her sons had never suspected. While imprisoned, she not only provided spiritual succor to her fellow detainees, occasionally in the form of eerily prescient palm readings that earned her the nickname “mischievous saint,” but also brokered a cease-fire between the Dutch army and Indonesian guerrilla fighters who allowed a convoy of sick female prisoners to be carried through the jungle to a Red Cross station. De Hartog heard these stories from others; he only truly began to know his mother for himself 20 years later, when she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. As he despaired, her modest bravery and steadfast faith again sustained him. The book is remarkable not just for its exceptional subject, but also for its portrait of the unsettling process by which an adult child comes at last to know a parent.
A diminutive masterpiece.