#1245 – WINTER IN WARTIME by Jan Terlouw—translation by Laura Watkinson



Written by Jan Terlouw
Translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson
New York Review Children’s Collection 2/4/2020
220 Pages   Age 10—14

Genre: Middle Grade Book, Historical Fiction
Themes: WWII, Heroism, The Netherlands, Resistance



It’s the winter of 1944-45, and the Netherlands, Michiel’s home, has been at war since he was eleven. Now he’s fifteen, and his country is under Nazi occupation, including the town where he lives and where his father is the mayor. No longer able to attend school, Michiel spends his days running urgent errands on his bicycle, avoiding Allied bombers and German soldiers alike. Then one day, his friendship with Dirk, the neighbor’s older son and a member of the secret underground, involves him in the care of a wounded British pilot. When a German soldier is found murdered and the townspeople are blamed for his death, Michiel’s already risky mission turns life-threating. (from back cover)

Opening Sentences

It was such a dark, dark night.

Why I like Winter in Wartime

Michiel, his older sister, and younger brother live with their parents in a German-occupied Holland village. Public transportation no longer runs and the Germans confiscated all cars and most anything else with a motor. Most must get around by walking, though a few, like Michiel, have a bicycle. The entire village is under an eight o’clock curfew. If caught outside after curfew the Nazis could shoot you; questions came after, if at all.

Without electricity or coal, heat is limited during this very frigid winter. Villagers burn any wood they can find to stay warm. In Michiel’s home, they burn wet wood, saving thin strips of dry wood for emergencies. Food is very scarce and the rations are not enough. Michiel spends most of his days doing whatever needs done. He fixes broken carts and other items, takes letters from the mayor, his father, to their recipient, chops wood, fetches milk, and simply makes himself useful.

One evening, his neighbor Dirk, a member of the resistance, gives Michiel a sealed blank envelope. The resistance is going on a mission the next night. If Dirk does not return, he wants Michiel to take the letter to Bertus, a local farmer. Until then, Michiel must carefully hide the letter.  This “favor” unwittingly pulls Michiel into danger when Dirk fails to return home.

Winter in Wartime is a captivating story that is harder to read when you remember this winter of 1945 actually happened. The Nazis actions and reactions, their meanness and cruelty, and the atrocities done onto this small village might surprise anyone not living in Europe. Michiel takes on the responsibilities Dirk had taken on, which includes caring for a wounded British pilot now in an unknown hiding place Dirk built underground. The place is quite genius, as there was no need for it when Dirk conceptualized the idea and seeded a dense forest around it, just because it might be needed. Resourcefulness is not in short supply in this village.

During the four years of occupation, the people in this village could never be absolutely be sure if another person was friend or foe. Out of fear, some villagers helped the Germans. Saying anything to the wrong person could get you killed. At the age of fifteen, Michiel is a master caretaker of his secrets. Uncle Ben is a member of a “rescue” resistance, ferrying downed Allied pilots out of the country and back to England. Michiel idolizes his uncle and values his advice. Uncle Ben is one person Michiel can trust.

Author Jan Terlouw wrote an excellent story based on his childhood living in Nazi-occupied Holland. In fact, since released in 1973, Winter in Wartime has never gone out of print in The Netherlands. It has been adapted for both stage and screen. The movie was a blockbuster-smasher in the Netherlands, out selling the Big Box movies such as Twilight. Winter in Wartime won Golden Pen Prize for the best Dutch children’s book in 1973.

The fast-paced action swiftly takes you through the story. Winter in Wartime is definitely a can’t-put-down story. There is much violence, but blood or guts are inferred. There might actually be more violence and corruption in a middle grade fantasy, yet Winter in Wartime is not a fantasy. What the Nazis did, often for no real reason, is terrifying. Other books about WWII might give facts regarding number of civilians hurt and injured. Winter in Wartime tells you how people died or were hurt and how people reacted to the violence.  The Nazis do not make hollow gestures or threats, but occasionally a soldier surprises the people with his humanity.

For kids who enjoy war stories, WWII is something that happened in someone else’s lifetime. This dissonance protects them, but violence and violent people don’t need a war to cause harm.  So while a middle grade novel, Winter in Wartime is not for the average eight to twelve year old. Advanced readers and those children you believe can maturely handle the violence should most definitely read Winter in Wartime. If you have any concerns about your child reading this story, I would advise you to read the story before or with your child, rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Winter in Wartime reinforces the need for peace, not war. What happened in WWII happens in wars, period. The often-unofficial acts of violence can be worse than the big offensives. The story is more about Michiel and his bravery, brilliance, and perseverance. He finds ways to stand up to the Nazis and beat them at their own game, yet he never feels victorious. Boys will love the drama involving the British pilot and the ways in which Michiel helps his fellow villagers. For teachers and those who devise curriculum, Winter in` Wartime makes a great adjunct read when history class begins a session on WWII. Winter in Wartime can spark discussions on good vs. evil. Can someone be as evil as the Nazis’ and also kind and good to a neighbor? This dichotomy is a big part of the story that will keep kids and adults turning the pages and staying up late to read Winter in Wartime.

Bizarre Nazi Scene/AKA My Favorite Scene  [SPOILER]

Louse Adelheid Mathilde, Baroness Weddik Wansfeld, lived in a large white house by the river Ijssel. The Nazis charged her with a war crime she may or may not have committed. One morning, a German sergeant with two soldiers came to arrest her. She refused. They left. It was all idiosyncratically polite.

Later that afternoon, a German officer with five soldiers, and a battering ram came for the Baroness.  It was all very polite, but, once again, she refused and they left.

The next morning, the commander of the garrison rang her doorbell. He asked for an invitation to enter her home. The Baroness agreed . . . as long as his pistol stayed behind. It did. After a tense but polite conversation, the commander left. The following day he returned . . . in a not-so-polite tank.

I have left a few details out, not wanting to spoil too much of this story for you. The image of a polite Nazi is hilarious, even more so because the story is semiautobiographical, based on the author’s own recollections. The entire situation is like a comedy of errors, until the end, which was authentic Nazi cruelty.

Available at Amazon

WINTER IN WARTIME. Text Copyright © 1973, 2003, 2016 by Jan Terlouw. English translation copyright © 2018 by Laura Watkinson. Published by The New York Review of Books Children’s Collection, New York, NY.

Originally published in The Netherlands as Oorlogswinter in 1973.

First published in US by Pushkin Press in 2018.


Copyright © 2020 by Sue Morris/Kid Lit Reviews. All Rights Reserved

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