How can one defend oneself? Basically, one cannot. Everybody simply keeps quiet. The low clouds seem to reflect the menace hanging over the village. Below, fear walks in the streets, in the gardens, and in the houses. The village waits motionless for the future to reveal itself.
(from Winter in Wartime, page 49)
Winter in Wartime, originally published as Oorlogswinter in 1972, is a young adult novel by Dutch author Jan Terlouw set in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II. The novel follows 15-year-old Michiel during the winter of 1944, known as Hongerwinter or the “Hunger winter.” Although it appears that the Germans are losing the war and that the war will end soon, the Nazis maintain a presence in the village, enforcing the nightly curfew, searching homes, and arresting people with ties to the Resistance.
Michiel’s father is the village mayor, so they seem to be better off than many families, but they give food and shelter to the steady stream of people walking miles and miles from home in search of food. His father is well respected and not a friend of the Germans, which is why Dirk, a neighbor and Resistance fighter, seeks Michiel’s help just before a raid on the office that distributes ration cards. If something goes wrong, Michiel is to deliver a letter.
When Dirk is arrested, Michiel knows it is up to him to get the letter to its intended recipient, but he must tread carefully as he is watched by Mr. Schafter, whom many believe is an informer for the Nazis. When he learns the letter’s recipient has also been taken away by the Nazis, Michiel opens it and learns that, unbeknownst to the rest of the Resistance, Dirk has been hiding a wounded British pilot. Then, when the body of a dead German is found, Michiel’s father is arrested, along with several others who will be executed if the murderer does not come forward.
Winter in Wartime is a captivating novel about a young boy who is forced to make some very grown up decisions. Being a teenager is a confusing time, even more so in Michiel’s case, as he is living in an occupied country where there is little food, no safe way for him to attend school, and the fear of being caught, tortured, and killed constantly hanging over him. He didn’t seek out the danger, but what we he supposed to do? Who can he trust? Michiel’s burden is heavy, but his mother — despite being terrified — loves him and trusts him enough to give him the space to do the right thing.
This is a short but poignant novel that drew me in from the very first page. Terlouw paints a vivid picture of a landscape hardened by the cold winter and the brutal war. He enables readers to really get to know Michiel, his confusion, his fear, his mistakes, and most of all, his bravery. I almost finished the book in one sitting because I just had to know what happened to him and his family.
Winter in Wartime is one of the best young adult World War II novels I’ve read so far, and I hope to convince The Girl to read it at some point. It’s also one of the best translated works I’ve read, given that I never felt like something was missing. Terlouw’s characters are all well drawn and believable, and he enables readers to feel the intensity of the war, the harshness of the winter famine, and the life-or-death decisions that must be made at every turn.
Disclosure: I borrowed Winter in Wartime from the public library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.