“As far as Papa knew, we canned a dozen jars of asparagus. He carefully added to his ledger and carried the preserves to the cellar. What was the harm of setting aside the thirteenth jar in the back of my wardrobe, behind the bolts of fabric leftover from Mama? I didn’t know what compelled me to do it. Many years later I would look back and wonder what instinct drove us to do the things we did. I have so many excuses.”
So reflects fourteen-year-old Hilde, the main character in Lena Scholman’s debut novel, Between Silk & Wool. A work of historical fiction, set in the province of Gelderland during the Second World War, Scholman weaves together bits and pieces of stories she was told, her own fact gathering, and family experiences to create a beautiful and harsh composite of a complicated time in history.
This time of history cannot be easily retold or defined and Scholman honours this complexity with careful attention to character development I am reminded of my own paternal grandfather and his difficulty in sharing wartime experiences as a young father post-war. Living with stress-induced trauma was not understood well at that time, and the family’s immigration to Canada made it more complicated. Over time, my opa was able to share more readily with his grandchildren through his storytelling on recorded audiotapes. Truly, war leaves an indelible mark, spanning generations.
Courage and betrayal
Though young Hilde’s voice predominantly speaks throughout the novel, Scholman crafts supporting characters that add depth and complexity, expanding our vision of the village where the novel is set and nudging us to reflect on choices made for survival and sacrifice. No one is immune to the devastating impact of war, regardless of financial status, lineage or street smarts. We meet Lady Astrid and her children who must learn to welcome guests not of their choosing. We meet Benjamin and follow his quest to be safe. We ache with Hilde over the speed at which she must age into adulthood. We observe the small village of Brummelo adjust to the German occupation over five years, and we wonder about Mayor Schueller’s loyalties. As the narrative spins its threads, it becomes harder to discern loyalties and innocence. As I read, Solzhenitsyn’s famous quote came to mind several times: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Between Silk & Wool challenges the reader to reconsider how we honour and protect what matters – and how we might interpret courageous living. Not all of the Netherlands was united in resisting the German forces during WWII. The Dutch National Socialist Party (NSB) worked to rally support for Nazi Germany, in hopes to reclaim a healthy economy and a secure financial future. Though some Dutch may not have formally pledged their allegiance to Germany, betrayals were exchanged for food and safety.
Whether carefully curated or raw and messy, storytelling can hold the key to unlocking memories, helping those held captive by secrets. In addition to amplifying the experiences of those who lived at that time, historical fiction as a genre also offers readers a glimpse beyond what we think we already know about a time in history. As someone with Dutch parents, I found aspects of her book familiar to my own family’s stories, but I couldn’t help wondering about the backstory of her frequently referenced German characters, particularly the captain and a young soldier named Frid. Yet, as a literary debut, there’s room to explore more context and background with future works. Perhaps a companion narrative will soon follow!
Lena Scholman is an author from Hamilton, Ontario, and she also works as the Spiritual Life Facilitator for Redeemer University’s Take 5 gap year program. She is no stranger to published writing, as her work has appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, Toronto Star, and Globe and Mail. Between Silk & Wool is Lena Scholman’s first novel, and she has thoughtfully included a glossary at the back of her book for the Dutch and German references, as well as a list of suggested books for further reading.
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