In this memoir of vertrek, the Dutch word for leaving, first-time author Paulusse recounts his family’s immigration to Australia from the Netherlands in the early 1960s.
Paulusse was baffled by his parents’ decision to move to Australia. After a five-week ocean voyage, the family landed in Melbourne to start a new life but faced difficulties. Struggling to find employment, Paulusse’s father, Piet, worked at disappointing jobs and launched a boat-building business that failed, forcing Paulusse to augment the family income. He emptied the neighbors’ garbage (and sold the porn magazines he found), worked at a butter factory at 13 after lying about his age, and performed menial jobs to help the family manage. Paulusse paints cameos of the people he and his family met, comparing his new Australian acquaintances with his Dutch family and friends, whom the Australians jocularly called “clog wogs.” Australians seemed willing to give anyone, including immigrants, a “fair go” and “mateship,” while the Dutch come across as earnest, hardworking, and frugal but not without humor. Discovering hair in his food at the Australian assimilation camp where the family first stayed, for instance, Paulusse’s father joked that the dandruff might add flavor to the meal. This resilience, along with determination and persistence, allowed the family to survive if not always thrive. Paulusse repeats himself occasionally and makes some spelling mistakes, e.g. “Manderin” and “plagerized.” Sometimes he doesn’t explain enough—for instance, about his own curious birth with two stomachs or what might have caused his young sister’s unexpected death. But the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It’s loaded with perceptive portraits of the Australians and Dutch Paulusse knew and descriptions of his family’s struggles. The book also provides an ambivalent take on assimilation and the so-called advances of modern life compared with “a quieter, more stable time.” Overall, these memorable anecdotes are told with empathy and laced with wit and warmth.
A perceptive, descriptive portrait of Australia in the 1960s and of the immigrant experience in general.