There have been two books that have had a great influence on me when I was a child and there have been two traumatic incidents in my adolescence concerning those books. As you may have guessed, as many people have had similar experiences in their life, these were the moments my favourite books were adapted for the big screen. Both movies were disappointing in every sense, both utterly terrible as a film and the worst homage to both the books and authors, who had originally created wonderful tales of adventure and mystery. Instead, we got saddled with pretty boys with long hair who couldn’t ride a horse to save their life in a movie theatre. I’m still not over it, as you can see, so please please please, do not watch the films, but read the books. The first one of these books so horribly adapted was ‘A letter to the King’, reviewed by Jo here. The second one is called ‘Crusade in Jeans’ by Thea Beckman and to this day, it’s one of the greatest and most original Dutch stories I have ever read.
Rudolf Wega is a fifteen-year-old boy, who isn’t special in any way. He comes from a place called Amstelveen and usually goes by the name Dolf. For the Dutch people reading this, in the 70’s when this book was written, Dolf was quite a common nickname for Rudolf. But when an experiment in his hometown is to take place with a machine called the ‘Materietransmitter’, he volunteers and he is then transported back into time. His plan was to watch some French medieval tournament for a while and then return home, but through some faulty calculations, he ends up in the German city of Spiers in the thirteenth century. As he is unable to return to the twentieth century, he joins a children’s crusade that plans on freeing the Holy Land through their innocence, led by the shepherd’s boy Nicolaas with a vision from God.
Thousands and thousands of children have joined the crusade and it’s usually children who have nowhere else to go. Apart from the hordes and hordes of children, there are two monks who seem to have taken over the organisation of the crusade. Dolf worries for the children and quickly takes charge to try and protect them, and keep the children’s crusade from unnecessary losses. He tries to organise groups that search for food and one that protects the others from wild animals and such and yet another that can lead the way. He even saves a group of children from an earl who has taken them captive as slaves, by creating some makeshift gunpowder (which had not yet been invented in Europe in the thirteenth century). Apart from Dolf’s inventiveness and knowledge that goes beyond the typical medieval person’s, he is also an avid history lover in his own time, so he starts to recognise some things that have happened and will happen, crusades being one of them. Of course, this makes him stand out like a sore thumb and both the monks and Nicolaas start to dislike him.
Eventually, Dolf realises with his more modern knowledge of geography, that heading to Genua where the sea will open up to them to get to the Holy Land, doesn’t make any sense and he starts to investigate. One of the monks, Anselmus, desperately tries to discredit Dolf and accuses him of witchcraft. This does have an effect on some children, as witchcraft was a very serious accusation at the time, but some side with Dolf. However, Dolf turns out to be right and the children’s crusade is nothing more than a front for a much more sinister plan fuelled by the innocent belief that the children have in their quest to save the Holy Land. But Dolf manages to save them all in time and he is saved as well, also just in time.
Thea Beckman was still quite the phenomenon in the Netherlands fifteen years ago. Born in 1923, she started writing most of her historical novels after her retirement. After her death 2004, Crusade in Jeans was made into a film (an utter disaster) and this was one of her books that was translated into many languages. As I mentioned, many of her books are historical novels and I used to save up all of my money to buy them. When I was twelve I had almost every one of them, about thirty in total, and they were my absolute favourite. Her strength in writing lies in the fact that she takes an ordinary person, like Dolf, and places them in a great historical situation. This makes her books easy to read page-turners and before you know it, you’ve read a children’s book over 600 pages long! I have loved history for as long as I can remember and a large part of my knowledge as a child came from my father and Thea Beckman. Because the historical elements in her books are always completely correct: this woman has done her research. You get a complete history lesson, often through the eyes of an ordinary inhabitant of a Dutch city at a certain point in time, but without noticing it. As a reader, you focus on your character, which are often also historical figures, and the things that character goes through and you are simply entertained. But to this day, I remember dates, events and names in history by linking them to specific books by Thea Beckman.
Crusade in Jeans is actually one of her books that is a bit different from the other books she has written. To start off, her main character is a man, Dolf, and often her main characters are women, sometimes famous, sometimes especially ordinary, but always opinionated and feisty. Beckman has often been described as a feminist, though she herself didn’t agree with that label, but her women aren’t always non-conformists, rebels or tomboyish: they can find their strength in being a mother as well, but strong they always are. Some of these girls can be found in Crusade in Jeans, but mainly it’s men and boys in this novel, with the same strength of mind that is. Another striking feature is that Dolf isn’t from medieval times, but he is from our time. This way, the main character is even easier to relate to than her standard medieval characters. And lastly, there is an element of science fiction or magical realism or whatever you want to call it added in this book in the form of a time machine. For an author that tends to meticulously do her research in archives and city history books, a time machine as part of a story is an unexpected piece of fiction, but strangely enough, it works very well.
The main problem I had with the movie was how badly history was executed in the film. Medieval times are portrayed as a kind of Medieval Fantasy Fair, with anachronistic themes and objects and two-dimensional sets and characters. Thea Beckman’s books are the complete opposite. Her books contain so many accurate details, without going too much into history, that you actually feel like you’ve just walking into medieval times. The children’s crusade was a factual historical occurrence in 1212, but the emphasis in the book isn’t on this magnificent historical event, but on the common children who were a part of it. And they are common, poor and innocent. They knew very little of what was going on, but they just followed along with it all. That’s what you feel like as a reader, like one of the children walking the crusade, not yet knowing that countless of books would be written on the subject.
There are many books that I have read as a child and many books that have shaped me to be who I am today. I think most children love to read, as most children love stories of some kind, but they just need to find books that grab their attention. Before I studied theology, I studied history for a few years. I’ve visited many cities in the Netherlands, just because I was fascinated by their history. Thea Beckman has made me the history-loving, investigative and bookwormish adult I am today. And even though she is such a Dutch literary phenomenon and even though her books are written for children, I think everyone should read at least one of her books in their life. You might even learn something, completely by accident, almost like you’re stepping into a Materietransmitter and are transported to the past.
Self-sufficiency Award: for the author who has been called a feminist, a communist and a socialist, but didn’t agree with any of them, apart from the label of a self-sufficient woman
Thea Beckman, Kruistocht in spijkerbroek (Rotterdam, 1973)