The sharp focus on Mrs. Verhagen gives “The Winged Watchman,” Hilda van Stockum’s novel about a Dutch family during World War II, such power. The close-up tasks of the women are just as heroic as the tasks of the men who often fought to protect their loved ones. Who knew a great war story would ultimately be a mother’s tale?
The Winged Watchman, by Hilda van Stockum (191 pages, Bethlehem Books, 1997)
Hilda van Stockum (1908-2006) is mostly remembered for her children’s books. A native of the Netherlands, who lived for periods of time in the United States and for the last thirty-two years of her life in England, she was also a painter who had shows in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Ireland. In the last-mentioned place, she was honored by having one of her paintings depicted on a postage stamp and by a retrospective of her work at the Royal Hibernian Academy.
Her artwork had a distinctive viewpoint. In a 1985 interview for Irish Arts Review, interviewer Brian Fallon observed that her paintings are often done “in fairly close-up perspective, in a strong but even light, and in relatively shallow space, with a fairly sharp focus.” One can observe this common feature by looking at the collection of her paintings available at hildavanstockum.blogspot.com, the site maintained by her family and friends. She was a master of still life and the close portrait. When she painted larger scenes, such as a view from a town, she depicted narrow streets, canals, or the view of a church. Van Stockum agreed with Mr. Fallon and explained why her artistic lens was this way: “I think a woman usually sees things fairly close, by washing up dishes, handling food, inspecting children’s faces. She hasn’t the wide view of the sailor and the shepherd, and handling large canvases is sometimes difficult. I’m at home with little things, and they have to be viewed closely.”
Her most famous book, The Winged Watchman (1962), about the Verhagens, a Dutch family involved in the resistance during World War II, shares this close view. The title is taken from the name of the big windmill Mr. Verhagen works, yet the cover illustration for the book (currently published by Bethlehem Books) does not present the majesty of the Watchman. Instead, the viewer looks down over the shoulder of a boy clinging to the wings at night in the rain while a man with a gun and a flashlight approaches the mill below—a close but extremely exciting view.
The book begins in 1944 with ten-year-old Joris Verhagen, a boy who has gotten used to the feeling of danger and the realities of war—bombers passing over his house, the distant sound of anti-aircraft fire, and the domination of the Netherlands by the Nazis—but still does not like them after over four years of the conflict. For him, the breaking point is when he comes upon a group of boys who have hitched a puppy to a cart and are beating her for being unable to pull them. He fights the boys, takes the pup home, and names her Freya. His father knows that this will not do but agrees to go to the family and attempt to keep the pup for his son. The DeWit family is living at the Schenderhans farm, where the older Schenderhans boy, Leendert, is now serving as a Landwatcher—an informant for the Nazi overlords.
Joris and his older brother, Dirk Jan, are caught up in the Resistance movement along with their parents. They not only have to keep Leendert Schenderhans from knowing about Resistance activity with which their friends and family are involved, but they also must protect those whom they have taken into the house. Dirk Jan is chosen by his uncle Cor, a leader in the Resistance, to deliver an important message that will involve sending messages via windmills. Joris, who really desires to do something of his own to help the cause, sees a plane go down and finds the English pilot hiding in an abandoned windmill. All of this, utterly plausible, is told in a realistic fashion that is accessible to children and just as exciting for the adult who happens to be reading to them. Or at least it was to this adult.
The excitement is not just that things happen, though they do. It comes from the Verhagens’ serious Catholic Christian faith, which is depicted as giving strength but not making things easy—for the parents or the children. The Winged Watchman is Christian fiction that does not fall prey to the literary harm that John Henry Newman warned of in his sermon “Unreal Words”:
In books, everything is made beautiful in its way. Pictures are drawn of complete virtue; little is said about failures, and little or nothing of the drudgery of ordinary, everyday obedience, which is neither poetical nor interesting. True faith teaches us to do numberless disagreeable things for Christ’s sake, to bear petty annoyances, which we find written down in no book. In most books Christian conduct is made grand, elevated, and splendid; so that any one, who only knows of true religion from books, and not from actual endeavours to be religious, is sure to be offended at religion when he actually comes upon it, from the roughness and humbleness of his duties, and his necessary deficiencies in doing them. It is beautiful in a picture to wash the disciples’ feet; but the sands of the real desert have no lustre in them to compensate for the servile nature of the occupation.
The Verhagens’ faith is never depicted in this unreal way. Neither the children, who are navigating growing up in a world war, nor the parents, who are also navigating a situation they can’t control, escape the drudgery and the unpoetical quality of life under occupation. While the story is told largely from Joris’s perspective, and occasionally from his fourteen-year-old brother’s, the difficulties of the war are often depicted as concentrated on their mother.
Mrs. Verhagen is clearly a woman of talent and hard work who is watching out for others. She takes in Trixie on her own initiative. When a Jewish family in town is taken by the Nazis, Mrs. Verhagen follows the mother’s desperate signal into the garden and discovers an infant hidden in the bushes. She smuggles the child home. She takes in Koba and Betsy, two other little girls from another city whose parents are in hiding. She keeps a lot of other people in health, too.
Often beggars came to the mill now, starving people, young children in rags, with emaciated faces, old men on quivering legs, women wrapped in shawls, carrying babies. They came from the cities in search of food, and Mother always gave. She invited them to share a meal; she put a little extra fuel on the stove to warm them; she took from her small hoard of food so that they would have something to carry home. Always they left a little more cheerful than they had come, but it saddened Mother’s heart that she could do no more.
This close-up view of the toll that the war and the German occupation are taking makes this serious believer angry enough at one point to refuse to pray for the Germans. Mr. Verhagen—who is no feminist—doesn’t simply agree, but scolds her: “‘We have to pray for our enemies,’ he said. ‘What sort of Christian are you?’” Rather than argue, she accepts the correction and prays for them.
But she also is the one who faces the moral quandary of what to do when Leendert Schenderhans suspects that Trixie, who has red curly hair unlike the blonde Verhagens, and Betsy and Koba, who suddenly appeared, might not be theirs and starts poking around in the records. Mother lies outright to the Landwatcher, shocking Joris who has been told by the priest, Fr. Kobus, that lying is always bad. Mrs. Verhagen replies that normally this is true because “everyone has a right to the truth. But when you know that the other person is going to use the truth to rob and maim and kill, do you think he still has a right to it?” She continues, concluding that the hatred of lies is good, but that “truth itself becomes a lie in the minds of our conquerors.” Some sticklers might be disappointed by such an answer. Joris certainly was shocked by what she has said, but is glad she said what she did when he looks at the little girls.
It is the close-up view of Mother that we see when Betsy and Koba go home and Trixie, whose real name is Rachel, returns to her mother at the end of the war. Mr. Verhagen recognizes this at the end of the book and tells his sons to look at her.
Do you know who suffered the most during the war? The mothers. And do you know who will get the least praise? Again, the mothers. You haven’t any idea, and you never will have, what it cost your mother to keep going, never daunted, never giving up, taking each new blow in her stride and keeping you all happy under the worst possible conditions.
While Mother declares that she did “nothing,” the careful reader, child or adult, will see that Mr. Verhagen is not patronizing or mollifying his wife. As heroic as the tasks of the men who often fought to protect their loved ones are, so too are those close-up tasks of the women. Their work illustrates the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves of bread and the call for little ones to be brought close.
The Winged Watchman is a successful war story because it focuses on the real war that wages in all of us, whether we, as Mrs. Verhagen says at the end, feel “responsible for the neighbors” or not. As much as the story is about Joris, Dirk Jan, Uncle Cor, soldiers, and pilots, it is ultimately, and surprisingly, the sharp focus on Mother that gives it such power. Who knew a great war story would ultimately be a mother’s tale?
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