Tuesday 20 January 2015

2015 Classic Children’s Literature Event: The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum

In the month of January I'm linking up at Simpler Pastimes for Amanda's Classic Children's Literature event. I only have two books selected, as I think that's all I'll have time for:

The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum and Bambi by Felix Salten

The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum (1908-2006)

It's not easy to find a story that presents a realistic picture of World War II and is at the same time appealing and suitable for younger children but The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum satisfies this criteria.
Written in 1962 and set in the years 1944 & 1945 during the Nazi occupation of Holland, The Winged Watchman is a work of fiction which accurately portrays occupied Holland at that time, as readers who lived through those days have attested. But, of course, many other books have been accurate in their portrayal of this time period. What the author did in this book to make it appropriate for young children was:

* To include enough realism to make it believable, while at the same time
* To temper the story with an underlying optimism that good will eventually conquer evil
* To view the war through the lens of a young boy in an warm & happy family

The war years are seen through the eyes of Joris Verhagen, a ten year old boy, who lived with his father and mother; his brother Dirk Jan aged fourteen, and their little 'sister' Trixie, in the Rynsater polder. Their father, a millwright, was responsible for keeping the polder (a piece of reclaimed land) dry, and he operated the old wind-powered mill, 'The Watchman.'

Joris was six years old when the Nazis overran Holland and was incredulous when Dirk Jan talked about life before the war. Joris had only known rationing, the drone of English bombers and the sense of an always present danger.
In Joris's eyes, everything was black and white.
When the Germans posted a notice ordering all dog-owners to present their dogs for inspection so that useful animals could be drafted into the army, Joris was devastated that his beloved, energetic dog, Freya, would be taken.

Why doesn't God stop the Germans?
Why does He let them continue to do awful things?
He could just kill them all!

When his mother told lies to protect a life, Joris was shocked and said so. His mother's reply told him what he had vaguely felt was right, but his black and white thinking wouldn't allow him to accept:

"It is bad when you hide the truth from someone who has a right to it, and in a normal world, where people try to obey God, everyone has a right to the truth.
But when you know that the other person is going to use the truth to maim and kill, do you think he still has a right to it?
The Germans...broke their treaty with us, invaded our country, bombed our cities, chased away our lawful government, killed or deported our men, women and children...
Do you think they have a right to the truth?
You are right to hate lies, my dear. But remember that truth itself becomes a lie in the twisted minds of our conquerors."

The Verhagens lived in the country and were better off than the city-dwellers who faced severe food shortages, but they had their own share of troubles and danger.
Their neighbour's son was a traitor who spied on them continually and the author used the tension involved in this situation and other areas to explore the theme of moral responsibility.
Moral responses aren't always black and white, as Joris learns, and the right choice often comes at a cost. It cost the Verhagen family a great deal but at the end of the war, when peace finally came, they were counting their blessings - thankful, despite their losses.

I read this book aloud some years ago and this month I read it for the first time with my youngest. It remains one of my favourite, not to be missed, books for children.
It is a simple, faith-filled story and is an ideal vehicle for presenting and discussing such things as truth, courage, wisdom and moral responsibility.
Children around the age of about 7 years and up (or younger, depending on the child) would love this book but if you have an older child who hasn't read it, I think they would enjoy it also.
As with another World War II book, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom (which I highly recommend for older children & adults) civil disobedience is an important concept that could be discussed alongside moral responsibility.

Hilda van Stockum dedicated her book to her brother, a Royal Dutch Air Force pilot who was killed during a bombing raid over France in 1944. He wrote the following words, which capture the sentiment expressed in the book, before his death:

"I could stand idly by and see every painting by Rembrandt, Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo thrown into a bonfire and feel no more than a deep regret, but throw one small, insignificant Polish urchin on the same bonfire, and by God, I'll pull him out or else. I fight quite simply for that...It is as simple as St. George and the Dragon."

The Winged Watchman is published by Bethlehem Books.

Also linking up at Booknificent Thursday


Hwee said...

I have this book on our bookshelf for when we study WWII, but your excellent review has made me want to read it right now. :-) Thanks for sharing your insights to these wonderful books. I find them to be very helpful in choosing the appropriate books for our study.

Cleo said...

I love Hilda Van Stockum. I read this with my daughter years ago. What a great choice for the event! Your book choices are always excellent!

Carol said...

Hwee, I was going to save it for when we were studying WWII but my daughter kept asking if she could read it. It's one of those books I like to read aloud because there are so many important ideas that come up. She loved it.

Carol said...

Thanks Cleo. She's written some great stories for children.

dawn said...

I've not heard of it but it sounds great. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've read a few books about the German occupation in The Netherlands ( The Assault, H. Mulisch and Pastorale 1943, S. Vestdijk) but never one specifically written for children. I will have to look for this book....won't be hard to find here!

Carol said...

Dawn, The Winged Watchman is scheduled as a free read in AO year 6.

Carol said...

You Dutch are a clever lot - artists, authors...

hopeinbrazil said...

My husband read this to our boys, but I somehow missed out on it. Thanks for your great review.

amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

I don't think I've heard of this one, but when I was little I did read several WWII-set-in-Holland books, so it's possible I actually read it and just don't remember it by title. It does sound like quite a good book, especially for introducing some complex ideas to young readers.

Heather said...

I really enjoyed the book as well so I then read it aloud to my oldest last year. I've also read The Borrowed House by her, but wouldn't give that one to my 11 year old yet. I hope to get more of her books. I'm so glad you picked it!

Carol said...

I agree about The Borrowed House, Heather. It's definitely for an older reader. I think my dd was about 15 when she read it. My younger ones loved Andries. We have an ancient copy and I don't know that it ever got reprinted.

Amy Maze said...

We are fast approaching WWII in our studies, so I'm happy to see this recommendation! I'm going to see if I can get it because I know my son would enjoy it. Thanks!

Tina at Mommynificent.com said...

I've heard of this book but didn't know much about it, so I really appreciated your review. WW2 is also coming up in a few weeks for us, so this was timely for me! Thanks so much for sharing at Booknificent Thursday!