- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008


By Jan de Hartog

Pantheon, $17.95, 102 pages


Dutch-born Jan de Hartog made his name in the Netherlands before emigrating and

reinventing himself as an American writer. He is best known for his award-winning blockbuster of a play “The Four Poster,” which went on to be the equally popular musical “I Do! I Do!” What a surprise it is, then, to open this slim volume, published five years after his death at 88, and find it light years away from the frothy confections that brought him fame and fortune.

For “A View of the Ocean” is one of those rare books that take on, simply, plainly, directly and honestly, the big questions of life: How people react to extraordinary situations, and to the common but nonetheless devastating situations of mortal illness in themselves and those around them. It is at times a very hard book to bear reading, for it spares us little in the way of physical decay and suffering and is brutally frank about how courage can falter even in the bravest when they are faced with a hard death. But it is worth persevering, because of the hard-won insights into faith and bravery it contains.

De Hartog’s parents are at the heart of this book, and his portrait of them is tender but nonetheless searching. A prominent theologian in Holland, de Hartog senior was a Victorian figure of rectitude whom his rebellious sons found overwhelming. They even questioned the sincerity of the Calvinist Christianity he trumpeted so pompously. But one day, quite by accident, the author discovered evidence of his father’s sincerity:

“One afternoon I was sent to mow the lawn. I was on my way, reluctantly, when I suddenly came upon my father praying alone behind the bicycle shed. He did not realize that he was being observed; he stood there, eyes closed, hands folded, face lifted, in what he obviously believed to be a private moment. I found myself forced to the astounding conclusion that God was real to him, that religion was not just a family convention.”

Later, as the Nazism across the border began to contaminate free Dutch society, de Hartog saw tangible proof of the power of his father’s Christian faith against the ungodly Hitlerian creed. The only religious figure to defy the violence and threats of Nazi thugs, which had kept rabbi and priest from attending a meeting to protest Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, the old Calvinist minister galvanized the crowd of Jews and rioting hooligans by raising his hand in the Nazi salute and saying calmly:

“This is the way the heathens salute you: ‘Heil Hitler.’ … But this is the way we Christians bless you: ‘Heil Israel.’”

No wonder the formerly skeptical son now accepted his father’s self-appellation as a “tiger of God.”

Unlike her husband, who died before World War II, the author’s mother was forced to confront the harsh realities of the iron boot of tyrannical occupation by a ruthless enemy. Thousands of miles away from Nazi-occupied Holland, she found herself a prisoner of the Japanese, who had occupied colonial Indonesia, where she had gone to be with her other son.

In the harshest of environments, she had performed thousands of acts of kindness and aid and had, by what her son called “uncanny, gentle powers,” achieved myriad miracles. “I realized,” he writes, “… [t]hat my mother, whom I had known all my life as a fragile, vulnerable, self-effacing creature who had seemed to be able to survive only in the hothouse of a highly advanced and humane civilization, had come through the severest trial of endurance to which a person of her age could be submitted, and come through it triumphantly, be it toothless, haggard, and lame, with only a patched dress, a head scarf, and a haversack to call her own.”

As it turned out, though, this extraordinary experience was not the worst trial of her life: That was the ordinary disease that killed her, cancer, a common scourge for human beings that needs no war to bring it on. And so after all the amazing events of their earlier lives, it is the struggle of a dignified, devout woman to bear her sufferings and the anguish of the son who witnesses it that form the heart of this extraordinary book. Suffice it to say that what the Japanese could not do, cancer did, and the portrait of this woman bereft of everything she managed to maintain in the prison camp is one of the most heartbreaking accounts ever penned.

The book’s title comes from the 17th-century Quaker George Fox’s lines which form the book’s epigraph:

“I saw that there was an ocean of / darkness and death, / but an infinite ocean of light and / love flowed over the ocean of darkness.”

It is a measure of de Hartog’s humanity and skill as a writer that he brings the light of faith and hope to what would otherwise be an unbearably dark work.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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