Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer
Based on the true story of the author’s father’s family, Thief of Glory follows members of the Prins family during World War II through a storytelling format. The book opens to Jeremiah Prins in jail with his daughter wondering how he ended up there. Then the story, narrated by Jeremiah, begins in January, 1942, when he was a ten year-old in the Dutch East Indies. He recounted his family’s last few months in their home as the Japanese advanced through the South Pacific, including his encounters with Laura and Sophie Jensen and Georgie Smith who will be influential in the story. By March, the Dutch Army and its British and American allies protecting the oil resources have surrendered. Soon, the men and teenaged boys will be taken away to forced labor camps.
After his father, a schoolmaster, and his three older half-brothers are taken away, Jeremiah became the head of the household. His mother had always been prone to bouts of mental illness, so it was to Jeremiah that his father entrusted the care of his wife (Elsbeth), youngest son (Pietje), and his twin daughters (Nikki and Aniek). By fall, the women and children were placed in concentration camps called Jappenkamps. Jeremiah filled his role admirably by selecting their housing, gambling with marbles for extra food, and trading goods to gather what his family needed. Later, he expanded his trades to benefit the camp through combined efforts with Dr. Eikenboom to gain needed medical supplies. Meanwhile, when a new batch of prisoners were brought into the camp, he rediscovered the girl he considered his sweetheart, Laura. Sadly, it also meant the return of his archnemesis, Georgie. But more importantly is the arrival of Laura’s grandmother, Sophie, and her example-setting braveness that inspire those in the camp to do the right thing when forced with harsh choices.
During the three years in the camp, Jeremiah was a key figure. Besides the aforementioned roles, he was indispensable in many other ways. Often with Laura and Pietje for assistance, but sometimes alone, he undertook brave missions to gather the supplies and to thwart the Japanese authority. He even got away carrying out the ultimate revenge against the camp commandant. Jeremiah also faced Georgie on multiple occasions, sometimes coming to blows. Sadly, as can be expected, by liberation not all ends well.
When the book is down to the last quarter, it jumps back to the present timeline in which the book began, or roughly seventy years later. We learn why Jeremiah was arrested and how his surviving family fared. We also see the return of Laura and Georgie. In an unexpected conclusion, we see how choices they made in the camps went on to affect their lives and how Jeremiah and Georgie learned from each other unexpected things about their mothers. We also discover the real reason why Jeremiah is recounting his story before it is too late.
Though at times heartbreaking, I did enjoy reading this novel. Jeremiah was a unique character; while young, he often acted with ingenuity and braveness beyond his years. His foresight saved many people, especially the friendship he earned with a young native boy, Adi, outside the camp’s fence. The characters’ parallels with the Holocaust victims is easily apparent-little food; small, crowded quarters; unsanitary conditions; cruel captors; torture; etc. As a whole, the book’s descriptions were vivid, which at times could be wonderful and others, namely an incident with a giant python, evoked real fear. I came away from the book feeling like I learned a bit about a time and place in history I knew nothing of before, which may lead me to look for a non-fiction book on the topic of the Japaneses internment of the Dutch and the subsequent Indonesian independence efforts at a later point. My only complaint is that time just seems to flow after the internment, with no true idea of the timeline; it took until the present timeline to learn they spent three years in the camp. It would have been useful to provide more for a timeline than ever decreasing rationing, a couple mentioned of outgrown clothes, and two pregnancies.
As mentioned, this novel was based on the true story of the author’s father’s family. Brouwer’s father was a young boy when he, his siblings, and their mother were forced from their Dutch East Indies home into a Jappenkamp. Earlier, Brouwer’s grandfather had joined the army and was taken away after the surrender; he was clearly the person Jeremiah’s father was based on. Aspects of his other relatives were used to flesh out other characters and their camp experiences were worked into the story. More about this can be read in the author’s note or online at the book’s website. The website also includes family photos and letters from the era. It is worth checking out.
I will admit, this novel is considered inspirational fiction, something I usually try to avoid reviewing because of the religious implications. I want to avoid bringing religion or politics into this blog. However, this is an exception I made. The story was overly interesting and I saw the ability to compare those in the Jappenkamps with those in the concentration camps. Plus it was based on a true story. I couldn’t resist. So I will say this about the undertones. Throughout the book, most direct implications of religion is when under threat of torture the characters sing hymns in defiance of their Japanese captors and a couple occasions when the children were read Bible stories. And they way these are worked in make them natural for the era and circumstances, not forced. Therefore, I can say for those who prefer not to read inspirational fiction, but love historical fiction, this is not one of those books that preaches a message to you.
- Book’s website (with pictures, primary sources documents, and more)
- More Info from Random House
- Read Chapter One
- Author Bio
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.