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The Occupied Garden: Recovering the Story of a Family in the War-torn Netherlands

by Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski

As the chasm widens between the current generation of parents that protects its children against every germ, scrape, or slight, and the generation preceding it, born into a world at war, this memoir is a powerful corrective. Sisters Tracy Kasaboski and novelist Kristen den Hartog collaborate seamlessly on the story of their father’s family, who lived in the Nazi-occupied Dutch town of Leidschendam near The Hague at a time when violent death and starvation were daily realities.

Kasaboski and den Hartog mine a mass of family correspondence, painstakingly integrating it with fine-grained historical detail. In the early parts of the book, they use the techniques of fiction to connect the reader to their grandparents, the newlyweds Gerrit and Cor, also weaving in the more plentiful records of the Dutch royal family, who become almost as familiar as the den Hartogs.

At first the treatment feels self-conscious, but when the Second World War enters the story in earnest, the book becomes truly gripping. It is astonishing that the human spirit is so resilient that the people in this battered family – an arm lost here, a leg there – could endure such prolonged trauma and go on to lead highly productive lives. To Canada’s shame, their privations didn’t end with liberation. Emigrating to give the children a better future, the den Hartogs were assigned to a northern Ontario town in the middle of nowhere. Their abusive first employer provided appalling accommodation and little food. Yet, sustained by Protestant faith and strength of character, Gerrit became the head gardener in an Ontario nursery, while Cor ran her own travel business.

This is intimate history: the writers recover not only the facts, but the tastes, smells, and lived experiences of events that today almost defy belief.