Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hunger Journeys by Maggie De Vries

Hunger Journeys is set in 1945 in Amsterdam during the end of World War II. The story begins with the residents of Amsterdam, including 17 year old Lena and 15 year old Piet anxiously awaiting the arrival of the liberating British army on September 4, 1944. But they are quickly disappointed. Liberation is not yet at hand and life returns to the struggle it has been for the past few years under Nazi occupation.

The Nazi's have absolute control over the Netherlands, and rigidly control everything in Dutch society in an ongoing attempt to subjugate the Dutch people and starve them into submission. In Amsterdam, the Nazi's control who may enter and leave the city. Most of the population is now starving. Conditions are somewhat better in the countryside because the farmers can grow their own food and at least hide some of it. Every day people manage to leave Amsterdam in search of food for their families. Every day the city people must travel further out to find food. It is a dangerous undertaking and people call these trips the "hunger journeys".

Like other families in Amsterdam, Lena's family is starving. There is her mother and father, her 19 year old sister Margriet, 15 year old Piet, and younger sister Bep. Her mother, pregnant, is suffering the most. At first Lena and her sister Margriet travel through the countryside in search of food. It is dangerous and the German soldiers often steal whatever the two girls manage to obtain. When the new baby, Nynke arrives prematurely,  the situation grows desperate. The baby is early and malnourished and Lena's mother is starving. At this point Lena agrees to  accompany her friend Sofie Vogel across the Netherlands to Almelo where there are reports of more food. Despite the danger and the many flaws in Sofie's plan, Lena takes the risk in the hopes that she might be able to send food back to her starving family. For Sofie however, the motivation is adventure and the possibility of meeting boys.

With fake ID and passes, they board a train but are soon discovered by German soldiers. When a dangerous situation is averted, the two girls by chance are helped by two other German soldiers, Albert and Ulrich, to reboard the train on it's way east to Almelo. Sofie begins a serious relationship with Uli almost immediately and it is this choice that will have disastrous consequences for her. But Lena is different from Sofie as she resists Alberts attempts to befriend her. She still sees Albert as a German, an enemy soldier who is the cause of much of her family's  and her country's suffering. In an attempt to win her friendship Albert tells Lena he is different from Uli. He tells Lena,
"I am a sign of war, I suppose... but not in real life. Not a home, where I belong. Do you know what I do when I am at home? I stick flowery patterns and stripes and curlices on people's bedroom and living-room walls. I am a wallpaperer. Not a soldier. Just a man. I am twenty-nine years old, and I am alone. I have been away from home since I was twenty-four."

However, soon Lena discovers that the train they are on is also used for something evil.
"The trains had been used for a terrible purpose. She knew that, or at least she had heard. But on this terrible journey, she had not given it a moment's thought. Not for one second had it occurred to her that what was for her an adventure was for thousands of others a death march, that this very car might have held such passengers. Now she knew...."
This knowledge makes Lena feel that she cannot develop a friendship with Albert because he too has been a part of a great evil. She experiences tremendous conflict because she is developing an attraction towards Albert. But the discovery of what the Germans are doing is too horrific to be ignored. Sofie has no such qualms regarding Uli. Lena appeals to Sofie's conscience telling her that she is not being true to how she was raised. Soon however, Lena comes to realize that Sofie has not been completely honest with her about many things and she learns that there are things she doesn't know about Sofie's family.
The two young women eventually reach Almelo and are taken in by two separate families. Sofie stays with the Klaassens while Lena lives with the Wijmann family. It is in Almelo that Sofie realizes the consequences of being a "mof lover" and Lena finds the courage to fight for what she really believes in.

Although Hunger Journey's begins in 1944, we learn of the early years of the war in flashbacks where Lena tells about how she lost a Jewish friend and the arrival of Sofie Vogel into her life. We see the effect war has on the Dutch people, their attitudes towards the Jewish population and how even her own family acquiesce to Nazi values.

Maggie De Vries has written a brilliant novel with an exciting plot and wonderfully developed characters that are poignantly realistic. Lena is the good girl struggling with her blossoming emotions around German soldier, Albert and trying to make sense of a world where most are just trying to survive. She tries to maintain her moral integrity and do what is right. In contrast to Lena, is Sofie, the emotional young woman who is determined to leave Amsterdam, have adventures and doesn't mind doing whatever she wants with men. Sofie never stops to consider what the consequences of her actions might be. Even minor characters such as Piet Berg and Annie Wijmann are well developed.
De Vries captures the struggles young men and women must have experienced during this trying time as well as the horrors of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
An excellent historical fiction read, that is highly recommended.

Book Details:
Hunger Journeys by Maggie De Vries
HarperTrophy Canada 2010
278 pp.

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