The secret in the title of A Family Secret (Farrar Straus Giroux) isn’t the sort that is being deliberately kept from others as much as it simply goes un-talked about for years.
And who could blame Helena Van Dort, an elderly Dutch woman who lived through World War II and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, for not talking about the war years all the time? It makes for a pretty unpleasant topic.
Comics artist Eric Heuvel’s crystal-clear storytelling, beautiful draftsmanship and open, inviting and expressive design makes for a pleasant reading experience, however, as unpleasant as the subject matter might be.
A Family Secret is Heuvel’s graphic novel about Helena’s war-time experience, written from a scenario credited to Heuvel, Ruud van der Rol, Menno Metselaar of the Anne Frank House and Hans Groeneweg of the Resistance Museum of Friesland. That sounds like a lot of experts to have in the room, and it shows in the book’s educational focus.
It opens with Jeroen, a modern day Dutch teenager, rifling through his grandmother Helena’s attic for things to sell at a holiday flea market. There he finds a scrapbook full of war-time clippings and other memorabilia, and asking his grandmother about them kicks off the bulk of the graphic novel, which consists of her telling Jeroen (and thus the readers) about her coming of age in the late thirties and through the rest of the war.
The intended audience was and is likely younger readers, as Helena’s story focuses heavily on the statement of the facts of the war in the Netherlands, with characters outside her family and immediate circle of neighbors speaking in simple declarations that fill the reader in on what’s going on in the world at the moment. (Time is also spent in Japanese-occupied Indonesia, where Helena had relatives).
Of course, it’s not like any additional drama is needed when the world is at war. Helena’s own family is a microcosm of the war. The Netherlands initially declared neutrality, but were invaded and occupied by Germany. Her father, a policeman, is forced to join the party, and is seen as a collaborator, eventually despised by even his own family. One brother admires Germany, and eventually joins their army. The other joins the Dutch resistance. Her best friend is a Jewish girl her own age, a girl whose family moved into Helena’s building after fleeing from Germany the Nazis there.
While the book may have recounted a lot of basic history to Dutch readers when it was originally published there, as a grown-up American who rarely sees discussion of the war from anything other than an American perspective, I found a perhaps embarrassing amount of this history new to me. Actually, the Jewish experience, the Russian experience, the English and the French experiences are the ones one often sees captured in American pop culture, but as to how the war was experienced from the Netherlands is a pop culture angle almost completely new to me (Save maybe a few 12-page stories in which DC’s Unknown Soldier helped the Dutch resistance kill some Nazis, but as bad-ass as those stories might have been, there probably weren’t very many advisers checking them for historical accuracy).
The skill with which this was put together then, coupled with the somewhat unusual angle on familiar subject matter, made it a rather compelling piece of historical fiction, regardless of the simplicity of its address.
Farrar Straus Giroux are also publishing an English translation of The Search by Eric Heuvel, Ruud Van der Rol and Lies Schippers. It follows Helena’s friend Esther through the war.