A World War II novel examines a small Flemish town coping with the Nazi occupation.
In 1944, the Flemish town Ramsel in Belgium has been occupied by the Germans for four years. Bruno Van Dam, the community’s doctor and pharmacist, is compelled to assume the role of savior as well. Two British pilots abandon a crashing plane, and seek refuge in Ramsel, breaking into Ivan Beckers’ cabin. Van Dam treats both of them (one is seriously wounded), and becomes, at great personal risk, the primary architect of their concealment from the Nazis avidly hunting them. Then Van Dam receives a request from Sister Cornelia to hide a 5-year-old boy who lives at a local school; she fears that the repugnant Nazi administration will discover he’s a Jew. The doctor, inexhaustibly compassionate, lets the boy stay in his basement until safe transportation can be arranged. Meanwhile, Sophie Verlinden, forcibly expelled from her home by the Nazis, schemes to extract rent money from Franz Ehrlich, the local head of the GFP, a feared arm of the Nazi Party. She delicately tries to entice him with the possibility of romantic dalliance, and even flirts with the idea of giving him information about the local population, risking being labeled a “Zwette,” the term for a traitorous collaborator. In his novel, Smolders (Alone in Boca Raton, 2014, etc.) displays a remarkable knowledge of both Flemish life and the volatile politics generated by the Nazi occupation, not considered unwelcome by all. In fact, the Flemish National Union, once solidly anti-Nazi, reverses its official position and endorses the invasion, prompting Van Dam to quit its ranks. While the dialogue can be a touch earnest, even bordering on cloying, the fast-paced plot delivers plenty of deftly rendered drama and suspense. Smolders ably portrays a town’s residents exhausted from the war, but also hopeful—especially following the Allied invasion of Normandy—that they will soon be delivered from imprisonment in their own homes. This is an affecting depiction of both simple heroism and complex moral ambiguity.
A historically fascinating dramatization of wartime tyranny in Belgium.