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Hylke Speerstra. De treastfugel.

Hylke Speerstra. De treastfugel. Gorredijk, Netherlands. Bornmeer. 2011. ISBN 9789056152703

Hylke Speerstra, like the journalist that he was for much of his life, knows how to sniff out a good story. He has done so again and again in tales of hardy folk who left the familiarity of the homeland behind for a hoped-for better life on distant shores (Cruel Paradise, 2005), or of semi-isolated folk, by choice, who survived floods, fire, crops failure, and epidemics (De oerpolder, 2009; see WLT, December 2007, 71). And now he has found another winner in De treastfugel (The bird that comforts).

This is the story of two families and their descendants who in the 1800s start out in the same small village of Hichtum, Friesland, then find themselves nearly a century later not only on two different continents but, shockingly, on two opposing sides in World War II. The families are bonded by a common metaphor: the figure of the "treastfugel," introduced early in the book when Meindert Boorsma, the bird lover, tells young Ytsje Wytsma: "In every flight of migrating birds another kind of bird flies along to lend comfort, for they have a long and difficult journey ahead of them." For Ytsje, in her long and difficult life that ended as a migrating widow in disaster-plagued South Dakota, her treastfugel was her faith. For Meindert Boorsma's grandson (his namesake), as an unwilling German SS soldier struggling desperately for survival in the disastrous siege of Leningrad and subsequent retreat, his treastfugel was his father's bird whistle that doubled as a guardian angel.

Ytsje Wytsma-Namminga long nurtured what she perceived as a divine mandate: to immigrate to America. In the early 1900s she, with her descendants, set out for South Dakota, where floods, disease, fatal accidents, drought, and the Great Depression made life more cruel than kind. Sometime after Ytsje's death in 1934, her son and family moved to Wisconsin for a brighter future. It is there that Ytsje's grandson Nanno is drafted into the army, takes part in the hell of World War II's D-Day and every major battle after that, then in the "liberation" of Germany, including a concentration camp, inexplicably living through it all without incurring a scratch.

Though the reader knows that sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, there is nonetheless some incredulity when the diverse paths of Meindert Boorsma and Nanno Namminga cross in Hitler's ruinous landscape, Meindert a deserter from the defeated German army and Nanno a corporal in the conquering United States army. They revel in their survival and their common Frisian ties and origins.

In richly idiomatic language, Speerstra paints his characters and actions sometimes in bold strokes, sometimes in subdued tones, but never missing a telling detail: "And she, she was a tall young lady, with eyes the color of the Isel Lake when a north wind blows under a clear spring sky." Readers will enjoy this slim volume for bringing to life the heroic struggle against implacable fate or foe by both the immigrant and the soldier, and the angst of those left behind.

Henry J. Baron

Calvin College
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Author:Baron, Henry J.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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