January/February 2008 -- John F. Landrum, The Jonkheer’s Wife (AuthorHouse, 2007), 304 pages (softcover), $17.95.
Imagine you are a colonel—a highly decorated war hero—in the greatest army on the face of the earth. You savor the taste of victory as your tanks roll unopposed through a foreign land. You gaze at the stunned inhabitants and feel yourself the agent of History's relentless march. Your men search for an appropriate location for your new local headquarters. Your men find a lavish mansion in a town, and you step inside with delight, barely noticing the young mother who stands watching you from the lawn.
To be specific, the year is 1940. Your army is the German Wehrmacht. And the foreign land is Holland.
Thus do we enter the world of The Jonkheer’s Wife, the spellbinding debut novel by John F. Landrum. Set during the period of the German occupation of Holland, the novel explores the true meaning of heroism, contrasting the collectivist live-for-your-nation version with an individualist live-for-your-own-values version.
A jonkheer is a member of the untitled aristocracy of the Dutch. Most of their aristocracy, oddly enough, is untitled. And the jonkheer’s wife, who has married into this elite class, is Sophia, the dark-haired daughter of a successful merchant. As the novel opens, her husband, the untitled nobleman himself, is missing in action. Has he been killed? Captured? Has he fled the country? No one seems to know. She is left alone to fend for herself and her two children.
The German officer, Erwin Schell, is a fierce warrior, but not a personally cruel man. He allows Sophia and her children to continue to lodge in the house, since there is more space than he actually needs for his headquarters. The Occupation of Holland, and the occupation of Sophia’s house, have begun.
From this invasive beginning, the plot picks up speed and the suspense tightens. You feel the personal fondness building between Sophia and the German colonel as they share living space, turning into a kind of emotional bond, and you wonder where this interplay will end. You see the icy shadow of the sadistic SS and the “final solution” creeping into the picture. As rumors start to float about who might really be Jewish, you know that no one will be safe until the country is liberated.
At its core, this is a tale of one woman and two men, each trying to make the world safe for what they love most dearly, all put at agonizing cross-purposes as they struggle with the intrigues of occupation, the hazards of resistance, and the open combat of final liberation.
The world of 1940s Holland is sketched with meticulous, loving care, revealing the little things that make a country’s domestic life distinctive, from casual talk of speed skating to great ceramic jars for storing cabbage. Landrum never bogs down in this kind of detail, but sprinkles it lightly throughout. You may find yourself wanting to visit rural Holland by the time you are done with this book. I know I did.
This is a tale of one woman and two men, each trying to make the world safe for what they love most dearly.
Particular attention is given to the culture clash between the militaristic Germans and the more commercial Dutch. The Germans, placing great store on ethnic heritage, assume they will find ready allies among this particular batch of conquered folk. “Netherlanders are Germans, pretending they’re not!” declares one soldier. The Germans start up a recruiting drive and ask their audience, “Do you want to live in a society of money-lenders and shopkeepers, or a society of heroes?” They meet with only modest success. Sophia, for her part, makes a study of the German soldiers: “See the swords they wear? They look ridiculous, don’t they? But they practice with them constantly! And they talk about the characters of the Iliad as if they were real people.”
Schell is a consummate professional soldier, proud of his country, and a man of his word. He believes, as the story opens, that Hitler’s intentions are basically good. “We seek to save Civilization. Not to destroy it,” he declares in an angry rebuke to a thuggish recruit. A student of philosophy, he downplays the use of abstract reasoning in everyday persuasion: “For most people, speak to their hearts.”
Sophia seems a bit of an outsider within her own society, but prizes a sense of belonging: “Sophia believed almost nothing in the Christian Bible. She knew that something had set in motion the phenomena that led to life, and she considered the gift of life a kind of miracle, a miracle that took the image of a Creator. . . . Singing and praying in the Cunerakerk revived her mindfulness of this Creator and the Creator’s precious gift. She scanned her fellow worshippers, each one a product of the same miracle, and felt a kind of communion.” You might say her belief system is Deist, but of a variety infused with high emotion. “The wind is God’s whisper, to show he is near you,” she tells her children. But she then explains to a friend that she doesn’t know how to explain to her children what has happened, because she doesn’t want them to see the world as uncontrollable and malevolent. “I don't know how they’d ever recover from that.”
Deep into the book, in a chapter entitled “The Strangest People in the World,” we witness another culture clash as a Dutch doctor trains for D-Day with an American assault team. That’s right—these “strangest people” are the Yanks, and I breathed a sigh of relief to see them finally make an appearance. After listening to the Germans praise the beauty of heroic death, I was glad to hear an American captain tell his men: “Any of you wants to become a war hero, let me know and I’ll move you to another outfit. In any company I command, staying alive is rule number one.”
Nonetheless, when they actually go to war, these Yanks display heroism aplenty. We know that the young Americans in World War II were no slackers when it came to combat, even though they did not always excel at the conventional military virtue of following orders. The American captain explains, “I guess I partly want a man who doesn’t boss too easily. You ever see photographs of young Nazis saluting? They look so earnest, like they’d do whatever you say, like they turned their brains off. That’s deadly. In battle, you have to be fully conscious.”
The Dutch doctor grapples with American ways, even as Sophia is grappling with German ways. The challenge represented by the Americans comes out most starkly in a conversation between the Dutch doctor and young former Catholic from Chicago:
“What do you believe in now?”
“Reason. Individuality. Freedom.”
“You think the priests didn’t?”
“They believe in faith, service, and sacrifice, actually the opposites of what I believe in.”
This declaration is from the mouth of a minor character; but individualism and its sustaining power in times of crisis is one of Landrum’s central themes. Mercifully, he doesn’t hammer the point home: This is not a novel filled with speeches or prolonged philosophic passages. But he sheds vivid light on the topic. He portrays his major characters as struggling to find their ways through the moral chaos of war and occupation. After all, they know that when the war is over, they will have to live with themselves, if they are to live at all. So they seek clarity in the midst of emotional tension, and they render moral judgments as carefully, and as contextually, as they can.
The book’s style is crisp, matter-of-fact, with no purple prose. The narrative rolls chronologically, with a few flashbacks now and then, and you have no trouble following along—even though you are in for some surprises about what some early events really mean. Perhaps it is best to say that the prose is deceptively simple, its strength lying in the careful selection of telling detail. Take this example:
Sophia poured steaming black coffee into porcelain cups, and passed a dish of koekjes, two for each guest, although it was rude to take more than one. Jan took two and nobody cared; it was wonderful to see him out of prison camp, taking too many koekjes.
A lot gets done in these two sentences. Some authors—Tolstoy, anyone?—would have devoted several paragraphs to the same material. But here, you learn the Dutch word for cookie. You learn a bit about that society’s table manners. And you learn that the manners aren’t nearly as important as a friend’s freedom. Also, if you try reading the sentence aloud, I think you will find that it flows very nicely, with a sound pleasing to the ear.
If you are a lover of action scenes, this book makes you wait a while, but I can assure you, it does deliver. The action begins just after the Dutch have been blitzkrieged into dazed, temporary submission. When it comes time for the Americans to take back Western Europe, you are there. While moving his story along briskly, Landrum displays impressive knowledge of the infantry tactics of the time.
Underlying the action, this novel has much to say about strength of character, the way in which love springs from character, and the way in which love reinforces character. Landrum clearly admires heroism in all its forms, including the quiet courage that sometimes manifests itself in acts of reconciliation. I wouldn’t quite call this an “upbeat” book: How many books dealing with World War II are upbeat? But the author paints a picture suffused with hope for the future, reflecting a deep optimism in human problem-solving abilities. His characters tend to be deciders rather than vacillators, and I wonder if that isn’t somehow connected with the fact that Landrum is himself a successful business executive.
The Jonkheer’s Wife will take you on a journey to a foreign land, with people you actually care about. The journey is not safe, and the decisions the characters face are not easy. You will think and feel through a realistic but difficult and dangerous situation. You will watch the major characters grow in stature as the war grinds on. And in the end, you will experience a form of triumph—muted, perhaps, by the suffering that preceded it, but triumph nonetheless.