This novel takes you back in time to World War Two, in Holland, and is based on fact. You will find yourself in the village of Berkenhout, hidden deep inside the woods. Reading this narrative, with the hindsight of a 21st century reader, you fear for the people throughout the book. Turning each page with dread, you try to hope…
From the outset, Jewish people disappear in the Dutch village. There is ‘A windowless van parked up ahead, its back doors open and the German soldiers were shouting at the elderly couple to get in.’ Such occurrences become part of everyday life for a community that decides to ‘stand up’ and support their Jewish neighbours. It is an incredible story!
The community hide their Jewish neighbours in attics and summerhouses. Eventually, an entire village is constructed, in the woods, to protect these vulnerable people. It is intriguing to observe how a community work together. In turn, Matthews examines how the hidden villagers feel trapped. It is sad that ‘freedom seemed an impossible dream’ yet we know it is better than the fate of their counterparts outside of the village. How could they have realised the danger? The German occupation is an ever-present menace that pursues the characters. ‘All it took was a stray German to bump into’ one of children running through the woods with supplies. Will they be caught?
The pathways, the darkness and the sounds of the forest help to personify the menace that is present throughout the novel. Sofie observes that:
‘for now, the sun was shining and it filled her with the warmth she’d forgotten existed’
The woods that symbolised freedom and adventure for children become an uncertain place. As in a nightmare, the shadows of fear begin to dominate but will the monsters ever become real?
A society is developed with rules, regulations and leaders but there is tension. Matthews explores the pressures of a community within a community. She presents some very strong central characters who grow up in this unnatural world. It is heart-breaking to observe how the children lose their innocence. These children live with uncertainty and broken families – they have to find an inner strength. The community spirit is heartening yet wanes under the burden of war. Some of the younger characters rely on friendships to support them but they learn about cold, brutal betrayal.
This isn’t a fairy-tale in the woods and ‘you just have to keep hoping’. You won’t go hurtling from one resolution to another. You know that not all the characters will survive. But you will take a look at how brave, unselfish people can work together in the face of injustice and discrimination. Children will play a real game of cat and mouse, with the Germans, as they risk their lives to deliver food to hidden villagers.
The woods also conceal a village that provides sanctuary for lost souls. You will find Englishmen, Russians, a defective German, an American. World War Two was fought in villages by brave people. Sometimes these brave people feel the weight of responsibility; sometimes these people go missing and sometimes they return. The narrative successfully captures the world of chaos. There are raids by German soldiers and some news of the outside world but even this information is in the shadows. The reader is distanced, with the villagers, from the outside world but niggled by their twenty first century knowledge.
As more and more refugees arrive in the village to seek sanctuary, one cannot fail to see the parallel with the refugees in Europe. Matthews gives an insight into how desperate people are driven into circumstances. The author guides you towards the uncertain ending. Find out about Lisebeth, Sofie, Jan and Oscar as they ‘soundlessly’ creep through their adolescence, in a chaotic world. Get inside of the hidden village and find out more about the impact of the exceptional circumstances on the very real characters and dilemmas. The characters of this book will never leave your memory and it will make you reassess the terrors in our own world.