It is pretty hard not to know that The Diary of Anne Frank, and Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, are likely to be enduring classics. They capture WWII in a way that chills us and arrests our conscience. Painful as they are, they are also tremendously hopeful. Neither, however, is a great fit for younger readers.
Recently I discovered a lesser known, but beloved by readers, living history book about the German occupation of Holland. Hilda Von Stockum’s The Winged Watchman is an edge-of-your-seat adventure story that paints a vibrant but challenging picture of war life for Dutch families. I think that The Winged Watchman is a wonderful warm up for The Diary of Anne Frank.
“Joris Verhagen was six years old when the Germans invaded Holland. At ten he could remember little of what it had been like before the war. Dirk Jan, his brother, who was four years older, could tell him more about it, but Joris suspected that he made things up. Surely there never could have been a time when people threw away potato parings and apple cores and fed their precious sugar beets to the pigs!”
The Winged Watchman follows a Dutch family during the last year or so of WWII when the German occupation was at it’s most desperate and abusive. The family operates one of the last non-electric windmills. The story is robust, creative, steeped in Dutch and Catholic customs, and is very exciting.
The Winged Watchman is full of hope, joy, fortitude, celebration of life, trust in the Almighty, and a good helping of resistance and sabotage. Written like a high adventure novel, the main story centers on 2 brothers (10 and 14), and allows us to view the sacrifices and suffering of occupation through the eyes of children.
There are scenes in this book which will stay with me and my nine year old for life. Unlike The Hiding Place, however, our main characters are able to combat the evil that presses in on them. Like The Hiding Place, Von Stockum leaves the reader with hope and clear examples of how everyone can choose rightly even when the world seems to be on fire. Because the target audience is young readers (approximately 2nd or 3rd grade and up), Von Stockum gives us a collection of wartime abuse vignettes rather than sustained situations. In this way, these bitter pills are easier for young readers to swallow.
A few notes about content: this story involves necessary deceit (good men lying to evil ones), a little bit of unnecessary deceit (as defiance against evil occupiers) and not graphic but chilling scenes of children starving in the cold. Additionally, the Verhagen family farm serves as an underground safe house of sorts. At one point, early in the story, a Jewish woman leaves her baby with the family without a word. The Verhagens then lie to Dutch informants who have sided with the Germans about the birth and baptism of the Jewish baby. Finally, characters we care about, do die. Off scene, but explained.
As a war story, it is to be expected that we will see a variety of human reactions to standing up against evil. The Verhagen family is deeply religious, principled, passionately pro-life and deeply challenged by the evil that surrounds them. Both of the boys feature prominently and are wonderful examples of integrity, courage, and manliness.
Stories like this are essential to my family library. I want my boys to have living stories like these to inform their moral imagination and inspire courage in their own lives.
WARNING: There is a slight St. Nicholas spoiler. If your family practices the tradition of St. Nick or Santa Claus, do know that it is explained that the visiting St. Nicholas is their uncle in costume.
Intrigued by a recommendation I saw online, I purchased the Winged Watchman in e-book format from Amazon and the audio version from Audible. John Lee is a master narrator. His reading voice is compelling, soothing and entertaining.