Women in Translation Month celebrates women writers who write in any language and the translators who put their words into English or other languages to make their work more accessible to a worldwide audience.
This biography caught my interest due to a time in my past and due to reading and reviewing another book by this author titled An American Princess which consistently gets the most hits of any post on my blog as people search for it, I imagine, thinking it is about Prince Harry’s wife. (It is not). My final interest in this book was the country Suriname–I am fairly geographically literate, but I admit that Suriname escaped my notice until some of my Operation Christmas Child Shoeboxes went there. Had I been asked I’d have assumed it was an island in the Pacific. Nope! It is in South America and was a Dutch colony whose bauxite production helped win World War II.
I came away from the book confused. Was it father or son who was the boy of the title? It could be either. Here’s the story: Dutch wife and mother Rika, 37, in a marriage she no longer wanted, fell in love with a much younger (about 20) Surinamese man named Waldemar who was her border after she left her husband. They had a son, also named Waldemar, but called Waldy. They ran a prominent seaside hotel on the Black Sea during the hard years of the 1930s. Their son, whom they nicknamed “Sonny Boy” after the popular song, was very loved. When the war came, Rika hid Jews from the Nazis. Eventually, of course, she was caught. She and her husband ended up in Nazi Concentration Camps. Young Waldy survived but had a troubled life thereafter.
My Thoughts–Where the Book Succeeds and Fails
My confusion on whether it was Waldemar [father] or Waldy [son] referred to in the title made it more challenging than it should have been to read this book. I’m pretty sure it was the son because the Dutch title was “Sonny Boy.” Sadly, the confusion came from the need to write a biography of a boy of about 15 at war’s end.
There is much to admire in this story–that Rika hid Jews, that she participated in the resistance is, of course, to be celebrated. That she dumped her husband and four older children and got pregnant by a man so much younger, from another culture, and who was supposedly just renting a room in her flat…that’s not very laudable. In fact, her eldest son never reconciled with her and only met his half-brother many years later.
When Waldemar’s [father] early life was discussed the author brought up that he was an “ocean swimmer.” I really thought this would lead to something great. She brings up that fact a few more times. Well, it does matter I suppose, in the very last chapter. The circumstances make it clear though that will to live, rather than any great skill or speed as a swimmer, where what mattered.
As for Waldy himself–there was really nothing to say about him. He was a baby, adored by his folks. He endured the confusion of some of his half-siblings visiting for lunch once a year for most years. Almost nothing is discussed as to why being mixed race might have made life hard for him in the Netherlands in that era. The big stuff happens to his parents. He is relegated to an almost footnote of a discussion in which his extended family finds him a burden after his parents are arrested. Oh, and he got in with a radical student group and found it difficult to write about the parents he barely remembered. That’s it.
By far the most interesting part of the book is that about Waldemar’s father and Suriname. That was all very interesting. I’m not at all saying what Rika and Waldemar went through was unimportant–of course, it wasn’t. But new ground was broken for me and for most readers in discussing Suriname and the Dutch colonials of that era.
The author’s American Princess book fell victim to similar confusion. The best part of it was her discussion of Queen Juliana’s husband, Prince Bernhard, and their wedding. Maybe she needs a new editor? The translation also made use of terms out of synch with the era of the story. “Going rogue,” “laid-back atmosphere,” the “drama” of life and other terms of today were jarring to me. One tiny historical error–she goes on about Neville Chamberlain speaking from the first floor of 10 Downing, when in fact he said “Peace in Our Time” at the airfield. He did later give a speech, but specifying the first floor of 10 Downing was odd.
As another volume in the canon of the Holocaust, another testament to those who tried to save Jews, this book works fine. As the biography of a mixed-race boy in Nazi-occupied Holland, it fails.
The Boy Between Worlds: A Biography by Annejet van der Zijl and translated by Kristen Gehrman