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Hylke Speerstra. De kalde erfenis.

Ljouwert, Netherlands. Friese Pers. 2001 328 pages. 18 [euro]. ISBN 90-330-1232-4

OCCASIONALLY THE WINTER temperature in Friesland dips low enough for long enough to turn to ice the streams and canals and lakes that form an elaborate network of interconnected cross-country routes. When that happens, young and old bind on their skates and indulge their great passion for this beloved winter sport. And when on rare occasions the ice grows thick enough for the 200 km, eleven-city marathon to be held, all of Friesland explodes in excitement, and media crews from everywhere rush to the province to record this extraordinary event. De kalde erfenis (The Cold Inheritance) is a celebration of Friesland's famous winter sport. More than that, it is a tribute, sometimes poignant and sometimes hilarious, to all those heroes of the past whose extraordinary exploits on the frozen waterways of Friesland constitute indeed a cold but proud inheritance.

The author himself belongs to that heritage. Coming from a long line of accomplished long-distance skaters, Hylke Speerstra has completed three marathons, the last one in 1997. It is that event that serves as the framing story of this book. Folded within the story is a rich assortment of marvelous tales of other races, of winners and losers, of colorful characters who over time achieved near-legendary status, all of which cumulatively presents a fascinating history of Friesland's long romance with long-distance skating. Speerstra took a calculated risk when he chose the story of his participation in the '97 marathon as a framing device. The narrative of this formidable ordeal, often over rough ice and against icy winds threatening to freeze eyeballs or toes, has its own suspense and charm, as well as a delightful element of camaraderie. But it is constantly interrupted by nostalgic glimpses of the past, for nearly every mile of this long race holds memories that are too good to be ignored. The danger is, of course, that the reader loses interest in the main narrative for its many digressions, or fails to become engaged by the journey into the past. But Speerstra is too good an author to let that happen. He skillfully balances all the strands of present and past adventures and weaves them into a tapestry that delights from beginning to end.

Speerstra as storyteller is especially fascinated by characters with grit, with an indomitable will, and sometimes fanatical determination: a character like Anton Knijn, who with a badly bruised sternum, three broken ribs, and internal bleeding managed to do the whole race from beginning to end, only then allowing himself to be hospitalized; or Jan Uitham, a great-grandfather who completed the marathon with a broken hip; or fellow participant and legendary champion Jeen van den Berg, now well into his seventies, who because of a problematic zipper forgoes relieving himself rather than losing time. But what makes Speerstra's art of storytelling stand out especially is his incorporation of colorful concrete detail, a richly idiomatic style, and vivid characterizations, as well as the frequent use of an illuminating moment when a person's emotions rise to the surface and reader and character are conjoined in their common humanity.
Henry J. Baron
Calvin College
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Author:Baron, Henry J.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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