Jan Terlouw's Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter) looks at the moral ambiguities of war through the eyes of a fifteen year old boy who finds himself involved in the Dutch Resistance by mere happenstance. But it is a role he embraces after more than four increasingly difficult years of fighting and Occupation by the German army. Like so many young men who see war as something heroic and imagine growing up (and hoping the war lasts?) to fight, he will have his eyes opened to the bitter realities of what war really means, and come to learn that few things in life or war are ever entirely black and white.
This is a story geared towards a young adult audience with its straightforward and unadorned prose and a strong moral message, but it can certainly be enjoyed by any reader of any age. It can even be read as an adventure story or coming-of-age tale as Michiel must learn to navigate the harsh adult terrain of independence with little guidance. Michiel lives in a small village with his parents, older sister and younger brother. His father is the town mayor so he is well-known and respected. Since the Germans are a permanent presence and his school is at a distance he can no longer travel to easily, Michiel spends his time at home occasionally reading boys' adventure stories like those written by Jules Verne, but mostly the days are too busy with chores and the nights are too dark to do more than what is necessary to survive day to day.
The year is 1944 and war has taken its toll on everyone, but particularly those big city dwellers who find they have less and less to eat and must travel (usually on foot), often hundreds of miles, to find food for their families. Worse it is winter and cold and there is little fuel to be had. It's not unusual for his family to take in distant relatives or friends of friends who are journeying from one place to another, so Michiel often comes home to a house full of strangers.
His good friend Dirk confides in him that he is going to break into a German distribution office in order to steal ration cards to help those who are in hiding. He gives Michiel a letter for safekeeping that he is to pass on in case something goes wrong. The worst comes to pass and Dirk is caught, but before Michiel is able to deliver the letter to Dirk's contact, the contact is also picked up by the Germans as well. It's up to Michiel to decide what to do with the letter. Destroy it for fear of it falling into the wrong hands and endangering more people, or shall he read it himself?
In the end he reads the letter and discovers that Dirk had been hiding an injured British pilot, a man who has now gone for days without food or water and surely must be frantic with fear and worry. So Michiel takes his first steps towards adulthood and real responsibility when he goes off to help the soldier. It's a dangerous undertaking and one that might cost him his life if he is caught.
As in any good story for children and young adults, the burden is set squarely on the shoulders of the young protagonist. I am not giving anything away by mentioning that Michiel's father is taken away by the Germans in retribution for the murder of a German soldier when the real culprit does not come forward. The point is to let Michiel make the decisions, the valiant efforts and in this case, too, the mistakes. In Michiel's case it is many times perceived mistakes as every step he takes seems to end badly. It's worse luck each time something goes wrong and he feels he is to blame.
Although working independently from the Resistance, Michiel is set a number of tasks, always more dangerous than the last--to help people find food or safe transit, to care for an enemy soldier or tr and arrange false identity papers. Even though he is still so young, his mother knows that both her elder children must do their part no matter the risk. In times of war innocence is lost quickly. They both, brother and sister, must learn some hard lessons. What seemed so straightforward before the war--people, once ordinary situations--is no longer so easy to read. Appearances are misleading and few people can be truly trusted, particularly when there is an informer amidst the villagers. There are bad and good people in Terlouw's story, but they are not always who you expect them to be, and for Michiel it is a challenge trying to sort out right from wrong, truth from lies.
Terlouw's Winter in Wartime is a well done story. It presents a difficult subject to a young audience in an easy and accessible manner and is a story that can be read on a couple of different levels. And he doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of war. The good is presented alongside the bad, and sad things happen to good characters.
I read Winter in Wartime for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. You can read her thoughts on the book here. Next up is Assia Djebar's Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War.