It is 1938 in the small Dutch province of Limburg, and Jozefina “Fing” Boon is about to be disappointed. Although the instructors at her Catholic school have recommended her for a teacher training scholarship, her grandmother refuses to accept charity. Instead, Fing, who lives with her siblings, her grandmother, and her widowed father, will be sent to work as a servant in the home of the Pruusin, a wealthy German woman married to the powerful Cigar Emperor whose business dominates the local economy. Worse than the potential indignity of the position, her actual job consists not of housework but of befriending the Pruusin’s troubled niece, whose apparent disability prevents her from relating to her peers. Lindelauf’s ambitious novel is an unsparing exploration of life in Nazi occupied Europe and of the painful internal life of an adolescent girl trapped in a world where nothing is what it seems.
Lindelauf’s characters are contradictory and ambivalent. Fing’s grandmother, Oma Mei, is a strong matriarch who has raised her late daughter’s children, including Fing’s physically disabled sister, Jess. She refuses to grant Fing the independence which she needs, but is also stubbornly protective of her family, and finally reveals courageous selflessness after the Nazi invasion of her country. Fing herself is capable of cruelty to Liesel, the mysterious child who has found shelter with her wealthy aunt and uncle. Unable to understand the girl’s continuous manipulations, Fing responds with disgust and attempts to control her charge through threats and false promises. Fing’s attraction to Filip, the young employee of the town’s gravediggers, is both confusing and rewarding to her. Conflicts with her sister, Muulke, are magnified by the instability of their lives. There are no comforting moments of simple compassion in Fing’s harrowing world.
The novel is divided into sections by year, each section with an ironic title and intriguing chapter headings. Readers experience the same sense of uncertainty as the characters themselves for whom “A Golden Future: 1938−1939” will not be an accurate characterization of that year. While “Believing in Saint Nicholas” and “The Doll that Saw Everything” seem allusions to fairy tales, the reality enclosed within them is closer to horror. One chapter is entitled “God’s Baking Tray,” an allusion to a sinister example of the antisemitism which is about to assume a deadly role in the Netherlands. One of Fing’s teachers had patiently explained to her class that the world’s people are the products of a divine baking tray, with Catholics perfect, Protestants less satisfactory, and Jews the most defective. Lindelauf resists systematic judgments about the people of Limburg as their Jewish neighbors are quickly transformed into enemies or objects of pity. As Fing observes when the town’s Jews are deported by the Nazis, “It was one of the few occasions that a small wave of indignation had swept through the town. Not that this indignation had led to anything.”
Eventually, Fing and her family will be called upon to make decisions during the Nazi reign of terror. Lindelauf’s skill in pacing the narrative causes each individual choice to take place within a sea of multiple possibilities. Heroism and betrayal, as well as indifference, all appear plausible responses to extreme circumstances. Early in the novel, Fing describes her attachment to Nine Open Arms, her family’s ramshackle old home: “Every time our house appeared at the end of the road…I tried to see it the way someone else would see it, someone not familiar with it.” Her insight is equally valid as a view of the novelist’s technique in Fing’s War, where complex characters with uncertain fates challenge the reader to keep pace with history.
This highly recommended book includes a list of characters and a list of foreign words with definitions and a pronunciation guide.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.