Tamar by Mal Peet

“Boredom had not been among the dangers that the SOE had prepared him for. No pompous little officer had stood in front of his class and said, “Right, chaps, today we’re going to learn how to deal with a particularly nasty little situation that secret agents tend to find themselves in: being bored abso-bloody-lutely rigid”.” – Mal Peet, Tamar

This is the book for you if you are looking for an unheroic war story. For all their bravery, men and women living through or fighting in a war are seldom the Hollywood-kind of heroes, and many people on the ‘right side of history’ might be frightful assholes. The Second World War is no different.

In 1944 two Dutchmen, who were trained in Great Britain, land in a rural part of the Netherlands to serve as spies for the Allies and give direction to the Dutch resistance. The young friends have been given English rivers as codenames: Dart and Tamar. They have to deal with opposing factions within the resistance, the danger of discovery, starvation by the Nazis and the severe boredom that comes with their posts. Both men dream of fleeing to safety with the resourceful farmdaughter Marijke.

Many years later, an English girl is called Tamar after her grandfather. Growing up, she knows that her grandparents had something to do with Dutch resistance but not much more. When she is fifteen years old, her grandfather commits suicide and she is left, confused, with a box full of clues. All she can do is follow the course of the river Tamar, with the help of some maps in the box. The book alternates between the story of the girl Tamar’s journey and the history of Dart and Tamar in the wartime Netherlands.

The author is British but as a Dutchwoman, I am impressed by his portrayal of the Netherlands and Dutch history. This novel is clearly well-researched and the Dutch characters feel very credible (don’t ask me what exactly constitutes ‘Dutchness’, though). After writing this book, Mal Peet probably had a better grasp on Dutch topography than I have.

The romance tale in ‘Tamar’ is beautiful and gripping but I was glad the war is more than a cheap dramatic backdrop to this story. Far beyond romantic love, war shapes people’s relationships even decades after it ends, and that’s what this book is about. And likeable or not, there is no way you can spend so much time following these characters through all the tension and uncertainty without feeling connected to them.

Peet’s writing is very detailed and precise, which makes for stressful and sometimes shocking scenes but also very happy, beautiful ones. In the midst of the turmoil Tamar and Dart spend languid hours in Marijke’s kitchen and young Tamar, however anxious she is, at times thoroughly enjoys her first roadtrip. ‘Tamar’ is more than a name, it is the word that connects everyone. It carries the memories of a family, able to evoke reactions young Tamar doesn’t understand until she follows the river to its beginning: her journey’s end.

I would recommend this book to anyone, whether you are interested in history or just looking for a good story. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Queen Wilhelmina Award: Dutch war history!

Mal Peet, Tamar (London: 2005)

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Jo Robin

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Set in an age and country of the typical Hollywood western, this book is the complete opposite of a heroic Clint Eastwood gun-toting kind of story. There are no romanticized cowboys, there’s no glory and the illusion is shattered, leaving nothing but a feeling of emptiness. And however bleak, this is exactly what makes it a great story.

The year is 1873 and Will Andrew leaves Harvard University because he wants to get to know the land up west. Leaving everything, he arrives at a small hide town that’s called Butcher’s Crossing. He joins up with a numb hunter, a sardonic skinner and an old bible fanatic cook, on one of the last buffalo hunts in the Colorado Mountains. Miller, the hunter, is so determined he risks everyone’s life in search of the last buffaloes. After a journey full of hardships, they find the herd of nearly 5000 buffaloes. But as soon as the killing begins, Will Andrew’s expectations are shattered. Miller shoots over a hundred a day, never stopping, and they skin the beasts to the monotone sound of his rifle. It soon becomes clear that they won’t be able to take 5000 hides with them, but Miller has turned into a zombie. He won’t stop until he has killed them all. Tragedy strikes, the bodies are rotting away just to get the hides and all hope seems lost. And what for? No one cares and you no longer care. There is and was simply no point.

John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing sucks you in. It’s a page-turner like no other. At some point I even heard the rhythm of the rifle and kept hoping against hope. Williams has a way of describing each scene in precise detail. This annoyed me the first few pages, thinking: is he going to go on like this forever? Every blade of grass has to be mentioned? Soon after, I no longer read the words separately; I just heard the wind going through those blades of grass, while reading. John William truly has a gift with words, as he creates more emotional depth with every description.

This book isn’t so much about hunting. It isn’t even about the characters. Actually, when I think about it, in the end you know very little about anyone in the book. It’s about the disillusion and emptiness Andrews feels at the end. It’s about Miller in this crazed capitalistic quest of simply killing, without really knowing why: it’s just what he does. It’s about a man who dies on the journey and no longer cares: he dies smiling. It’s about an old man going insane. It’s about men trying to conquer nature in the only way we seem to know how: behaving like ruthless beasts. It’s about the futility of it all. About the loss of youthful wanderlust and the loss of innocence and identity.

What touched me the most was when Will Andrews compares Francine, a young hooker who fell in love with him before they left, to the first dead buffalo he sees. Francine invites him to stay with her, but he refuses. She takes off her clothes and suddenly he feels embarrassed for her. He admired her from a distance, but at that moment she seems too vulnerable. She is no longer herself. When the first buffalo is shot and stripped of its hide, he thinks of the girl. The animal seemed so indestructible, but once it’s killed, it is no longer itself.

Will Andrews set out on his journey to get to know the land. In the end, he did and he got far more than he bargained for.

Rifle Award: For the futile killing of the most buffeloes…

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing (New York: 1960)

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Thura Nightingale