The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The historical fiction coming out in the last few years that depicts regular people and their lives in extenuating circumstances has really been wonderful. I now add The Dutch Wife to the list of really great writing and storytelling.
As always with any WWII story set at a concentration camp there are many events of abuse, rape, starvation, murder and more awful actions. Ellen Keith does not dance around these issues; instead she describes them with a realistic and stark attitude. As we all know they happened, and part of historical fiction is to warn us not to allow history to repeat itself I feel the level of detail and description is more than appropriate for the subject matter. That said, be forewarned that this is not a novel for the faint of heart.
Our primary story is told from two points of view. One from a woman from Amsterdam who is a Jew sympathizer. The other from a man who is a higher ranking Nazi officer assigned to the camp. The setting is a Nazi concentration camp with marginally better conditions than Auschwitz; which isn't saying much.
The narrative is primarily about this woman and man coping with what life has thrown at them. They both make seemingly impossible decisions in order to stay alive. These decisions and moments are the real heart of Keith's novel.
The 'Side' Story
This separate story is based on a historical event I knew nothing about until reading The Dutch Girl. While the 1970's account of the Dirty War in Argentina and the wrongful communist persecutions sets up a great contrast to the WWII narrative; every time Keith swapped to this story all I wanted was for the chapter to be over so we could return to our leading man and woman at the camp. The dual telling of these stories adds an analytical view on suppression and control of a dictator; but overall I could have done without it. But I'm sure some English professors are thrilled with the comparison and essay opportunities the story adds to The Dutch Wife. This is added story is the only reason why I give this 4 stars instead of 5.
Both our characters in WWII have situations in which they are going against their gut reaction. Each time this happens they end up with conflicting emotions with what they are doing. Keith does a brilliant job of show us that circumstance is really what leads us to make certain decisions. And while in average daily lives they maybe wouldn't have made the same decision; the harshness of the concentration camp and the will to stay alive means that both our characters do what some may call morally subject things both physically, mentally and emotionally.
I've always thought that circumstance drives the core decisions we make on a daily basis. Factors like age, health, safety, money, opportunity (or lack of) cannot be overlooked when we analyse why someone does something at any given time.
As with most WWII stories, The Dutch Wife focuses on the inner personal conflict that many people (German or not) experienced when they started to realize what following the Nazi party laws meant in actuality. Keith focuses on the strife and struggle for average people to survive during this time of harsh rules and deadly outcomes. The focus is on how so many people 'allowed' this power shift to happen and why so many made decisions we might today call immoral.
The Dutch Wife clearly demonstrates that none of us can say that we would never, ever break a personal moral. Instead only that we have all been fortunate enough to not been pushed beyond all reason to make decisions purely based on the will to live.
For example: it's easy to say I will not cheat on my spouse; but it's a lot harder to stay committed if that spouse: goes missing for years, has ailing health issues, is inattentive or in any way abusive. Each of these scenarios (and many others) might convince, even the most fervently devoted spouse, to act differently than they would if they had a loving spouse next to them. Until you have been in someone's shoes you cannot say what you might have done or not done. The Dutch Wife shows this with such clarity regarding what we today would consider simple decisions. It's a truly wonderful perspective and had me thinking a lot about the idea of morality and what makes someone a 'good' person. Keith also focuses on the continuing theme that we all have a basic instinct, hard-wired in our brains, to survive. And at moments when survival seems unlikely or is challenged nothing but surviving matters anymore. This is the moment when 'good' people can cross over into areas of morality they never imagined they'd go. This is the power of limited options on the brain. Survival instinct takes over and we are no longer the person we once were.
The personal introspective into 'average' people and their rationales during this extraordinary time makes The Dutch Wife more about people and how we cope, than about WWII itself. Regardless of what historical plight or time Keith had chosen I believe the core story wouldn't change in this novel. Being able to relate with each character and understand each point of view helps us understand the factors restricting their choices. This makes this a very intimate novel that is likely to make many people wonder what they would have done given the same circumstances. In our increasingly complex and tumultuous world Keith has brought to light how the climate of circumstances can definitely change our actions.
I am finding myself asking (more often these days) if I would do the same thing as someone in their circumstances. Doing this BEFORE judging or assuming morality, faith or commitment is something I believe more of us need to do. If we hold onto the understanding that survival is the key to life then I believe we would approach many issues and people differently. I hope others are able to get better perspective on the difficulty of having only awful decisions before you. And while to die is always an option; we should never underestimate our animal instinct to survive.
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