Monday, May 9, 2016

The Girl In the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

"This is all completely insane and every new piece of information only compounds the insanity. I'm trying to find a girl who vanished from a closed house. Who cannot be reported missing, because if the police found her, it would be worse for her than if they'd never gone looking at all. "

It is January 1943. Winter in Amsterdam. Holland was occupied two and half years ago by Nazi Germany.

Hanneke Bakker is on her way to make her "deliveries" of black market items. Hanneke trades in the black market - the "illicit underground exchange of goods" such as potatoes, meat, and lard so her family can survive. She hunts down items that can no longer be easily found in shops such as bacon, tea and chocolate. To Miss Akkerman, her first customer on this Tuesday morning,  she brings lotions and lipstick.

Hanneke's next customer, Mrs. Janssen, has requested sausage. The Janssen's have three sons, the two older ones have moved to London and America, but the youngest son died on the Dutch front lines attempting to protect Holland's border from the German invasion. Her husband disappeared a few months ago and Hanneke never asked about his whereabouts. She offers Hanneke real coffee and stroopwafel and insists she visit. Mrs. Janssen then tells Hanneke the real reason for asking her to stay:  she wants Hanneke to find a missing person.

Mrs. Janssen has been hiding a young Jewish girl in a tiny room off her pantry. Her husband Hendrik had a business partner David Roodveldt who is Jewish. The Roodveldts included wife Rose, and their two daughters Lea and fifteen year old Mirjam. In July David came to Hendrik needing a place to hide, so David brought them to his furniture shop where he built a secret room. Mrs. Janssen did not know her husband was hiding the Roodveldts and didn't find out until one night last month when a girl wearing a pale blue coat showed up at her door. That girl was Mirjam Roodveldt. She told Mrs. Janssen about the hidden room and that someone betrayed Hendrik. The Nazis came to the factory but when Hendrik claimed he didn't know and David tried to intervene, all were murdered by the soldiers. Mirjam escaped out the front door of the factory.  Mrs. Janssen tells Hanneke that she was hiding Mirjam in the secret room in her pantry until yesterday at noon. When she returned from visiting her neighbour, Mrs. Veenstra, Mrs. Janssen discovered Mirjam was gone. Mrs. Janssen has no idea how she left the house unseen nor where she might have gone. Hanneke promises Mrs. Janssen nothing mainly because she is trying only to survive the war.

Hanneke purpose in life at this time is to try to help her family survive, not to find missing persons. Her father is unable to work because of an injury during the Great War. Hanneke works as a receptionist for Mr. Kreuk, an undertaker. But Kreuk also has a second job for Hanneke. Using the ration cards of dead people, he stocks up on supplies and resells them at higher prices on the black market. Later on in the day after talking with Mrs. Janssen, Hanneke and her family witness their neighbour, Mr. Bierman who is Jewish being taken away by the NSB officers. Life in Amsterdam has changed so much for Hanneke and her family. Her best friend Elsbeth is now living with a German soldier. Her boyfriend Sebastian (Bas) Van de Kamp was killed on the Dutch front two years ago.

Hanneke decides to go back to Mrs. Janssen and ask her more about Mirjam. She learns that Mirjam attended the Jewish Lyceum. Even though it is now 3pm, Hanneke decides this might be the perfect time to sneak into the school unnoticed when the hallways are filled with students leaving. However, she finds the school quiet and mostly empty of students who are either in hiding or have been taken away by the Germans. At the Jewish school Hanneke is confronted by a tall young woman only a few years older than herself. She tells Hanneke nothing. When Hanneke returns home around 6pm she finds Bas's older brother Ollie waiting for her. Ollie, a university student, takes Hanneke for a walk and questions her about her visit to the Jewish Lyceum. Ollie reveals that the young woman Hanneke met at the school, Judith came to him because she believed Hanneke might be a Nazi scout. After pressure from Ollie, Hanneke reveals that she is looking for a fifteen year old girl and wants to meet Judith again to ask her. Ollie invites her to their supper club that both he and Judith, also a university student attend.

That supper club turns out to be a small resistance group that includes Ollie, Judith and her friend Sanne, Willem and Leo and is part of a larger network. The group is struggling to provide fake ration cards for the people that they have been helping in hiding. From Judith, Hanneke learns about how the beautiful theatre, Hollandsche Schouwburg has been turned into a deportation center for the Jewish population who are shipped to the camps. Judith's cousin, Mina works in the nursery or creche which keeps the children separate from their parents until they are deported to the camps. Hanneke learns that any Jewish person who is caught up in the nightly sweeps, regardless of whether they received their deportation notice, would be sent to Schouwburg. She needs to discover if Mirjam might be in Schouwburg.

As Hanneke continues her search for Mirjam she confronts the reality of the Nazi occupation of Holland and the effect of war on the Dutch people. Hanneke also begins to discover the risks the hidden resistance takes to save even a few Jewish children. And she uncovers the truth of Mirjam's disappearance, she discovers friendship, jealousy and unintended betrayal while dealing with the loss of the boy she loved.


The Girl In The Blue Coat is a finely crafted historical novel about life in occupied Holland. Set over the span of eight days in January of 1943, the novel follows Hanneke Bakker, whose blond hair would make her a poster girl for the Nazi party, as she searches for a missing Jewish girl.

At first Hanneke doesn't want to get involved in the mystery of Mirjam's disappearance but Hanneke undergoes a transformation over the week portrayed in the novel. At first Hanneke is concerned only with survival, like the majority of her fellow Dutch citizens. War, occupation and the loss of her boyfriend have hardened Hanneke to some degree.  When Mrs. Janssen wants her help, Hanneke's initial reaction is "Too bad she didn't realize I don't need to be buttered up. I work for money, not kindness." Even after Mrs. Janssen tells her story, Hanneke states "The explanation doesn't matter, really. I can't help her, no matter how sad her story is. It's too dangerous. Survival first. That's my war motto. After Bas, it might be my life motto...Now I transport black market goods, but only because it feeds me and my family. I flirt with German soldiers, but only because it saves me. Finding a missing girl does nothing for me at all."

Hanneke insists she is a different person from the one she was before the war. She doesn't believe she can change a situation that is much bigger than her small world.  "Finding this girl is not who I am anymore. That action is soft; I am practical. That action is hopeful; I am not. The world is crazy; I can't change it." 

She tells Mrs. Janssen that she will consider finding Mirjam.But as Hanneke begins to learn about Mirjam she finds herself drawn into becoming  "an accidental member of the resistance."  And she finds herself drawn into asking "Mirjam. Where did you go?"  Hanneke decides to help Mrs. Janssen partly as an act of rebellion against the Nazis, partly to try to put a bit of order into her "corner of the world" but also as "a way of finding the person I used to be." 

When it appears that Mirjam has been caught in a sweep and is at the dreadful Hollandsche Schouwburg, Hanneke becomes determined to free her and prevent her from being taken to the camps. Ollie tells her that his group cannot help her and that they cannot risk the resistance network for one girl. But Hanneke responds, "I know your 'greater good', Ollie, but if the good that you're working so hard for is one that won't work to rescue a fifteen year old girl, then is it worth it anyway? What kind of society are you trying to save?" 

Hesse builds the tension in her story with numerous plot twists that lead to the revelation of what really happened to Mirjam and her best friend, Amalia. The terrible tragedy plays out despite Hanneke and the resistance group's efforts. Like her own situation with Bas, there are unintended consequences of certain actions. Just as Amalia unwittingly revealed Mirjam's family's secret hiding place leading to the death of four people, Hanneke's pressuring of Bas to sign up led to his death. Hanneke did not believe Bas would die and feels enormous guilt over his death, just as Amalia felt enormous guilt over what happened to Mirjam's family. However, unlike Amalia who tried to fix her mistake, Hanneke can never undo what she's done. She comes to realize that doing good deeds will never make her feel better about the loss of Bas, but that healing is possible. "Maybe we can't barter our feelings away, trading good deeds for bad ones and expecting to be whole."

Hesse also effectively portrays the effect of war on people; how fear and the desire to survive at all cost changes people so that they no longer resist evil but unwittingly co-operate by simply doing nothing. For example Hanneke notes that after Mr. Bierman is arrested, "the shop assistant is selling vegetables to a customer, as though the store's owner wasn't just put into a truck and carted away, as though Mrs. Bierman's world wasn't just turned upside down."

When Hanneke and Willem watch one of the forced marches from the Schouwburg, Hanneke notes how people simply ignore what is happening. "The prisoners follow, carrying suitcases, disheveled and tired like they haven't slept in days. The crowd is big, maybe seventy people, and the soldiers march them down the middle of the street. It's a lovely winter day in Amsterdam, and though there are other people on the street, couples like me and Willem, nobody acts like the forced parade of people is out of the ordinary. Our sense of the ordinary has become horrifying."

Hesse also touches on the Dutch citizens who were on friendly terms with their Nazi occupiers and how they were thought of by their fellow citizens. This is done through Hanneke's friend Elsbeth. Hanneke and Elsbeth were close friends for twelve years but their friendship died when Elsbeth became involved with a German soldier and eventually married him. Hanneke refuses to attend Elsbeth and Rolf's wedding and she grieves over how the Nazi's poison everything.

There's plenty of references to some of the resistance actions by the Dutch and to how the Dutch Jewish population suffered. In this way Hesse creates a realistic setting for novel so that readers get a true sense of the what the Nazi occupation was like. Ollie, who it is revealed is a homosexual, confides his secret to Hanneke but questions her as to whether she will tell. Even at the end of the novel when Hanneke expresses her happiness over the defeat of the Nazi's at Stalingrad, she experiences momentary fear that the woman on the train may be a Nazi sympathizer.

The Girl In The Blue Coat is a combination of historical fiction, mystery and adventure. It has a strong heroine and an interesting supporting cast of characters.

Book Details:

The Girl In The Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
New York: Little, Brown & Company    2016
301 pp.

No comments: