Monday, November 12, 2007

Tulips and Anne Frank

A Hatred for Tulips / Richard Lourie
New York : St. Martins Press, c2007.

"I am your brother," said the stranger at the door.
At first I thought he was one of those evangelicals who go from house to house peddling salvation, but then I looked more closely at his face and saw my mother's eyes looking back at me.
"Come in," I said.

From these opening lines on I was enthralled by this book. It is the story of Joop, who grew up in occupied WWII Amsterdam. His younger brother went to America with their mother immediately following the war, and Joop hasn't seen him since. Now Willem has returned, wanting to know something about Amsterdam and about his own childhood there. Joop gives him a little more than he'd bargained for; no nice neat family history, instead, a long and harrowing tale of the necessities of survival in wartime. Joop's tale involves Anne Frank, and the legends grown up around her -- he says "Three-quarters of Holland's Jews go to their deaths, worse than Fascist Italy, but thanks to Anne Frank the country has a reputation for heroism, resistance, humanitarianism. Why tinker with that?"

Joop was a boy when the war began, and his family consisted of his parents and two younger twin brothers. The shortages of the war meant he had to find work, to earn a few cents, and to help find food. He gets a job as a delivery boy in a produce warehouse, and makes special deliveries to people in hiding. This turns out to be a good position, as he is able to take meager shares of the food he is delivering. This is especially important as the war drags on; the title refers to the distaste Joop feels for tulips, having eaten the bulbs during the privations of war. Things are complicated by his hated Uncle Frans, however, who had joined the Dutch Nazi party at the beginning of the war and gone off to fight for Germany. When he returns near the end of the war, legless, he has the idea that Joop should take him along on deliveries. Not only will they keep Joop's job, they will make extra money turning in the people they discover in hiding. This snowballs until Joop is fired, and is led into an untenable situation with his last discovery, one which shocks Willem (and this reader). Joop mocks him for thinking he was going to come to Amsterdam and find a happy story to take home to tell his children and grandchildren. Rather he's hearing the whole story, with Joop relieved to unburden himself. Joop tells Willem,
"People who don't have secrets imagine them as dark and hidden. It's just the opposite. Secrets are bright. They light you up. Like the bright lightbulb left on in a cell day and night, they give you no rest."

The story reveals Joop's troubled relationships with his father and with his Uncle Frans. He has to rely on his own wits to escape the beatings and verbal abuse which seem to be his lot. It's his quick thinking and flexibility, mentally and morally, that allow him to survive the war years. At least that is what he wants us to believe. The final lines of the book cast a different light on everything that has come before. Do we take Joop's word on the story he's just related? Willem seems unsure -- as he's leaving, he asks Joop:
"Your story," said Willem. "It was true, right, all of it?"
"Would I lie to my own brother."

And that is one of the reasons I found this book such a good read. With the last lines, I had to reevaluate the book I'd just read. If his story is true, is it guilt eating away at him that has led him to tell the story, finally? If it is false, what would lead him to associate himself with such a dreadful action? And what part does the audience (Willem and the reader) play in Joop's confessions? This is a book that I'll be thinking about for a while.


  1. I've looked at this book a few times, but I couldn't decide whether to check it out or not. I think I will have to add it to my list now that I've read your review. It sounds very good and very sad as well.

  2. I've never heard of this book. It sounds good. And the cover is very pretty.

  3. The cover's gorgeous! I tend to avoid WWII novels, though, so I'll probably pass on this one.

  4. This sounds good--disturbing, but good. I'll have to put it on my list, thanks!

  5. Sounds like a compelling perspective. Love the title.

  6. I started skimming your review once I thought I might be interested in reading the book. I'm glad I did, because when I got to the last bit about the reliability of Joop's story, I was hooked, and I don't even know what Joop's story was. I'll look for this one.


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