The Borrowed House

“[Hilda van Stockum] says, ‘It is light that creates beauty in nature. Without light we can’t see, and all form is lost, whereas the most common and despised objects can be made beautiful by the light that plays on them. You don’t have to paint heroic scenes or idealized goddesses . . . a common cracked cup can be beautiful.’ This truth is reflected in the stories for children, in the acclaimed paintings and in the domestic life of this artist, author, wife and mother. Her own commitment to Christian reality shines through the work of her hands. Shedding light upon ordinary things, she depicts life at its sanest and most normal. There is need of such good sense in our world today.” – Jean Ann Sharpe quoting Hilda van Stockum at Bethlehem Books

Hilda van Stockum lived a storied life which, combined with her professional training as an artist, made her an incredible storyteller. Born in Holland, she lived a short time in the East Indies, and then spent most of her childhood in Holland. When she was sixteen, her family moved to Ireland. Hilda’s multi-national upbringing allowed her imagination to feast on a wide variety of experiences, people, and settings. Her love of art and her formal training as a painter helped her to capture subjects and show them to their best advantage. Reading G. K. Chesterton as an adult, she was drawn out of her agnostic upbringing into a dynamic Christian life. Finally, her own married family life provided her with vibrant and wholesome family stories which center on the sanity and goodness of ordinary family life. 

In most of Hilda van Stockum’s books, the main character of the story is the ordinary happy family. In this cautionary tale, however, German Hitler Youth girl, Janna, is displaced from her family, and living on a German farm away from her parents. All Janna can dream about is being reunited with her parents, and having the kind of family we expect to see in a van Stockum novel. When Janna is sent to live with her parents in German occupied Holland, her hopes of normal happy family life are quickly dashed, and she is left wondering where she really fits in the world. As she discerns the answer to that burning question, all of her prejudices, hopes, and understandings of the world are turned on their head, leaving Janna confused and feeling adrift. But, in classic van Stockum style, the darkness of Janna’s pain is overwhelmed by light. While this book is hard in places and deals with some tough stuff, it is beautiful and powerful and excellent for young readers who are coming of age and grappling with big questions. Not unlike The Hiding Place or The Diary of Anne Frank, this wartime novel is honest about the evil of Hitler, but it is also hopeful and inspiring. So much so that it was one of my favorite teen book club books.

“Through wartime letters, my mother was frequently in touch with her Dutch cousins. The Borrowed House is dedicated to one of them, her ‘twin cousin’ Nella de Beaufort . . . for two decades, the losses were too painful for my mother to write about. But nearly 20 years after the end of the war, she wrote the first of two books about the Dutch occupation, The Winged Watchman . . . in 1975 she wrote this sequel based on a true story, The Borrowed House, about a German girl uprooted from her Hitler Youth program to live with her parents in an Amsterdam house that is ‘borrowed’ from a Dutch family. It follows Janna from her first introduction to Amsterdam, where her parents are entertaining German troops, to her questioning of Hitler’s theories of racial superiority.” – John Tepper Marlin, July 2016 in the foreword to the Purple House Press edition of The Borrowed House

Readers must note that this book is quite different from van Stockum’s other stories. It has a number of hard themes and some challenging content. I hate to spoil books in reviews, but this one requires a careful look, and to do that, I must give away some key details. In particular, I recommend that conservative parents of young and/or sensitive children read on. Also, parents who are concerned about romantic topics and/or the mention of witchcraft, also please read on. The main characters in this story are Nazi occupiers of Holland, and this story deals with Nazi ethics. This is a beautiful and powerful story. It handles the disconcerting content with grace. But it is honest about the German occupation of Holland and the ways in which the German people lost their way when they recanted their traditions and their religious formation. 

Twelve-year-old Janna Oster is everything that a good German girl was expected to be during World War II. She was bright and beautiful, she loved her indoctrination, she had contempt for her elders and their old traditions, and she was a good student of all the things Hitler loved. Her parents, famous actors, were living in Holland where they contributed to the glory of the Third Reich through their brilliant performances on stage. Janna was living on a farm in Germany, waiting for the day that she could be reunited with her parents. But when that day finally comes, it arrives at the worst of times. Janna has just been cast as Brunhilde in a stage version of Hitler’s favorite Wagner opera. She does not want to leave her Hitler Youth meetings nor give up her part in the play, but she does wish to be with her parents. 

When Janna arrives in Holland, she learns that her family and another German family are sharing a “borrowed house.” It takes a little time, but Janna does discover that the “borrowed” house was requisitioned by the German forces for their own, and that the owners were given almost no time to vacate and no means to take much of their property with them. Janna is fascinated by the clothing in the closet of her bedroom. When her mother, Mechtild Oster, discovers Janna wearing a coat from the closet, she sternly instructs her daughter to never use anything of the Van Arkels again.

Mechtild proves to be an interesting character as she is shocked and saddened by Janna’s education and dares to disagree with her daughter’s indoctrination against the Jews. She truly seems to have a conscience. However, the reason why the Osters have this house to live in is because Mechtild, a married woman, has captured the affection and attention of a high-ranking German general who is also a dashing and wealthy baron. While no true infidelity happens, the possibility of an affair hangs in the background of many chapters. In true van Stockum style, however, there is a good reason for it, and it resolves properly. 

Janna and her generation have been aggressively educated to reject all traditional norms. The baron and Janna’s parents, however, are young enough to be caught between two worlds – that of traditional values, and that of the rising new age of moral relativism. The baron, Otto Oster, and Mechtild are each examples of people who desire to be well-grounded and truly decent. Each makes good moral decisions at great personal risk. But, without a commonly held value system, each is in conflict with the other. Mechtild knows that her marriage is sacred, but she cannot defend it to the baron when her feelings for him are intensifying. Otto knows that his wife is being lured away, but he has no recourse because there is no moral standard to point to and promises are inconsequential. The baron knows that he shouldn’t be trying to take Mechtild away, but he is in love with her and there are no rules against taking what you want when you are a German officer who is also in favor with the Fuhrer. As upside down as we know it to be, the Baron feels justified in pursuing Mechtild because he knows that he is better positioned to provide for her than Otto is. He justifies his actions by claiming that love and concern for Mechtild is at the root of his decisions. Each character demonstrates good morality in other places, and yet are lost and confused on how to respond to this conflict. And Janna sees all of this. And it contributes to her ultimate rejection of the Hitler Youth indoctrination she has undergone. The true power of real family ultimately helps to shine a light on truth in an otherwise very dark and confusing world. 

But this is just one of several key storylines being woven together in this complex and mature story. 

When the Germans requisitioned the house from the van Arkels, they retained everything that came with the house, including the staff and the Jewish underground operations hidden in the house walls. 

Janna discovers a boy on the balcony of her room one night. Living in a chapel and priest quarters which were cleverly hidden between the walls of the van Arkel’s house and the row house next door, Sef spends his time making forged stamps that can be used in fake identification papers, and ration cards for Jews and underground operatives. The house cook smuggles food up to Sef every day and trades out his finished work with materials for the next day’s work. One of the access points into this hidden set of rooms is through the closet in Janna’s room. 

The friendship between Janna and Sef shatters her ideas about the lies she has been told at school about the Dutch people and the Jews. What is even more shocking to Janna is that by the end of the story, she and this slightly older Jewish boy have developed feelings for each other. It is important to note that nothing romantic happens between them other than when he quickly kisses her goodbye when he has to run away. 

The Osters share this house with another German family. Herr Frosch, part of the German SS, is a terrible man. We learn that he abuses his wife and his son regularly. None of it happens on scene, but it is a feature of the family life inside the borrowed house. 

Janna’s parents are working at the theater nearly every night. Herr Frosch regularly has SS friends over to the house at all hours. One evening Janna walks in on a small party of SS officers and their uncouth women. Janna is only twelve, but she looks much older, and she looks fresh and tempting to the vile men. One man grabs her and kisses her. Janna begs to be let go, and one of the women replies, “You’ll get used to it, deary!” which prompts Janna to cry out, “For God’s sake, let me go . . .” At this point, Herr Frosch puts a stop to it, explaining that Janna’s mother is a personal friend of the general. 

I think van Stockum includes this scene to help Janna see what Hitler’s army is really like. When Janna calls out, “For God’s sake,” the SS man says, “God . . . God doesn’t exist, or we would not be here.”

When Janna has honest and thoughtful conversations with her Dutch tutor, Hugo, and her Jewish friend Sef, this experience begins to shape her understanding of how vile and dangerous Hitler’s world is. 

Parents who are sensitive to witchcraft will want to know that Janna is captivated by Wagner’s story of the Ring of Power. In the absence of any authentic religion in her life, she begins to fantasize about having a powerful ring that will do her bidding. Her imagination runs away from her, and at one point she begins to wonder if she has some real magic. Mercifully, her good Dutch tutor acknowledges that there may be dark magic in the world, but that it looks wholly different than wishing, and that it requires great evil. Again, I think that van Stockum is showing her readers how dangerous it is to be without moral formation. 

I have read this powerful and beautiful book multiple times, and appreciate it more each time I read it. Importantly, as I noted above, I assigned this book to one of my teen book clubs. To this day, several years later, the students and their parents report that this was one of the best books we read together. Despite the difficult themes, this book is careful with our young peoples’ innocence. It shows them a world that is dark and confusing, and shows them how important light and truth are. Without scandalizing them, it makes them aware of the depravity of those who reject truth. It offers them an opportunity to wrestle with secularism through Janna’s experiences. It is a marvelous springboard for excellent mature conversation between trusted adults and coming-of-age teens. 

When looking for this book, please consider the Purple House Press edition. Jill Morgan asked Hilda van Stockum’s son, John Tepper Marlin, to write a foreword, which I found to be enlightening and a joy to read. Also, at the back of the book, Hilda’s granddaughter shared an essay on Hilda’s writing that is also a treasure. I purchased a copy for each of my children, and I am donating copies to a local school library, because we need this one in our world today. You can purchase the book directly from Purple House Press or you can purchase the PHP version at Amazon.

Also, Purple House Press has recently re-printed Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Ring and the Fire about Wagner’s opera. That book would be an incredible companion book for The Borrowed House. We hope to review that one soon. While we recommend buying directly from the Purple House Press website, you can find that one on Amazon as well.

If you want to learn more about Hilda van Stockum and/or The Borrowed House, check out this wonderful page at Biblioguides.com.

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