A story set in the aftermath of World War II.
Henk cannot remember a time when he did not live on the farm with Mama, Papa, Miep, and Pieter. All he knows is that he is the youngest son, that he must wear a silver cross around his neck at all times, and that whenever the soldiers come he must hide in the clothes hamper. He never suspected the truth. He never suspected that he was Jewish and that this was not his real family…
Then, suddenly, the truth is rudely made known to him. Abruptly he is told that now that the war is over he must go and live in a house of strangers and call them Mama and Papa. Henk is confused. Confused and hurt. Confused that who he thought was his father is no longer, and hurt that he must leave him to live with another family. It all seems so wrong!
Will Henk come to terms with his trying circumstances? Will he learn to love Papa David and Mama Elsbet?
I appreciated the role that relationships played in When the Soldiers Were Gone. They were, in fact, the whole point of the story. And usually, when relationships are the main focus of a story, it’s because they are very, very messed up. Now, in When the Soldiers Were Gone, they are complicated, it is true, but they are not (I repeat not) dysfunctional. On the contrary, they are very healthy.
When we meet Henk, he is very attached to his supposed parents – he loves them, trusts them, and obeys them joyfully. When he is told that two strangers are his real parents, he responds in a tumult of pain. He initially resists the effort to move in with his real parents, clinging to the ones that he has a relationship with (his loyalty, though misplaced, is testimony to his character). But he is not obstinate, only wounded. As he comes alive to the kindnesses of his real parents, he falls willingly into a relationship with them. Oh, sure, he still wants to return to the life he knew, but he doesn’t pout and he doesn’t rant.
Henk does experience frustrations in his new life, towards his real parents, but they are understandable. For example, while he has only ever answered to ‘Henk’, his real parents insist on calling him ‘Benjamin’. This makes him feel very uncomfortable. But he gradually becomes accustomed to his new life, develops affection for his real parents, and, by the end of the story, accepts his situation.
When his new parents ask him about a nightmare, Henk becomes embarrassed and lies to them about what it concerned.
One boy at school is mean to and makes faces at Henk because he is a Jew. Henk initially wants revenge, but his father shows him that it would be better to ignore the boy or report him to the school authorities.
David tells Henk that they “must always remember to thank God that we are together again.” [pg. 87]
Conclusion. An excellent book, When the Soldiers Were Gone explores an emotionally difficult situation from the perspective of a principled boy. It would do well in companionship with The Night Crossing and North of Danger.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret