Hylke Speerstra. De Oerpolder.
DE OERPOLDER (The ancient polder) is a book about survival: the testing of the human spirit in the age-old battle of the Frisians to survive the sea, and not merely to survive but to tame it in order to carve out a good living on land that in many places lies well below sea level. One such area, known as the Heidenskip, is located in the southwest corner of the province, an isolated region that, through the centuries, has often been accessible only by boat. This is where some stalwart Frisians chose to build their barns and homes and raise their families, cattle, and crops. This is also where they often met defeat and devastation by storms, floods, fire, crop failure, pests, and epidemics.
Hylke Speerstra, author of some twenty books, makes literature out of this intriguing and provocative slice of Frisian life and history by using a unique blend of fact and fiction. The stories focus on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century families and generations that through good times and disasters lived and died there. It was life lived at its most elemental level: birth and death, work and sleep, prosperity and poverty, lust and love. Death at an early age was common. Many women died in childbirth. Many women suffered widowhood multiple times. Many children were raised as orphans.
The people, language, and action are earthy. Life is rough and often cruel. Beauty and the Beast found their home here, too. Sex seems to be the main recreational outlet for these isolated people and ranges from the perverse and abusive to the passionately erotic. Impregnating a young damsel before marriage almost reached the status of honored tradition among the men, a source of virile pride.
Through the author's journalistic command of the physical realities of the early Heidenskip and a novelist's gift of endowing each character with individual uniqueness, he brings this subculture vividly to life through many a memorable character, scene, and episode. Unforgettable is the dramatic rendering of the epic storm in February 1825 that not only submerged the Heidenskip but put two-thirds of Friesland under water and took the lives and livelihoods of hundreds. Unforgettable, too, are such characters as Skipper Wiebe, an illiterate peasant whose erudition, eloquence, and equanimity would have impressed the scholars in the halls of the University of Franeker; and the carpenter-evangelist whose irrepressible urge to witness cost him not only repeat business but, finally, most of his customers. Speerstra is a master at particularity--how the snow creaks underfoot on a very cold, clear day; how the rooster, the cuckoo, and the coot announce the rising of the sun; and the image of the feared old patriarch, "a man hard as nails with a beard as soft and pure as fresh snow and eyes as cold as ground-ice."
The layers of concrete, authentic, historical detail are equally impressive, making for a stimulating reading experience that yields the feel for a place and time never before imagined. Indeed, the writing often rises to the level of inspired, and Hylke Speerstra's imagination, emotion, and verbal artistry are obviously fully engaged.
De Oerpolder is being translated into Dutch, and readers will be happy to learn that a sequel will follow in the near future.
Henry J. Baron