My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“There (in a village on the island of Java, Dutch East Indies), a marble game beneath the branches was an event as seemingly inconsequential as a banyan seed taking root in the bark of an unsuspecting tree, but the tendrils of the consequences became a journey that has taken me some threescore and ten years to complete” – Thief of Glory, Kindle Location 137.
These words of the narrator in Sigmund Brouwer’s novel Thief of Glory frame the story of a life. We intuit, through them, that this will be a story with dark elements that will have far-reaching consequences. That intuition is only underlined by these words a little farther on:
“I had no foreshadowing, of course, that the last few steps toward the shade beneath those glossy leaves would eventually send me into the holding cell of a Washington DC police station where, at age eighty-one, I faced the lawyer…” K.L. 168.
The narrator is Jeremiah Prins, a survivor of the 1940s Japankamps—concentration camps of Dutch colonists in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He begins his story on a day before the war begins, when he, as a 10-year-old, sneaks away from his mother in the market to play marbles with his friends under that banyan tree. That day two new people are at the game—the beautiful Laura Jansen, who will become the love of his life, and Georgie Smith, the older, bigger son of an American mine manager. Georgie’s threat to Jeremiah’s position of marble champion and rival for Laura’s attention sparks a fight that illustrates, in living color, the characters of the main players we will soon know very well.
The tale of Jeremiah’s personal vendetta against Georgie is set against the background of the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies. A few weeks after the story begins (in the spring of 1942) once-privileged Dutch families are split apart. Jeremiah’s is no exception. Fathers and older sons are taken away—eventually to work in Burma. In the fall of that year, mothers and younger children are rounded up and forced to live in Jappencamps—concentration camps of crowded squalor, carved out of former city blocks, now behind barbed wire fences.
Jeremiah’s Dutch determination, precocious wit, and unusual skill at reading people help him and his family survive. But their well-being is threatened not only by the grim conditions and sadistic camp management but by Elsbeth’s (Jeremiah’s mother) mental instability and, in a matter of weeks, the arrival of Laura, her grandmother, Georgie, and his mother at the camp.
Life in the camp is not pretty. In many ways this is a disturbing story—disturbing not in the cold-fact way Brouwer describes the horrible conditions and incidents, but because humans do such things to and are pushed to such extremes by each other.
The writing in Thief of Glory is brilliant—detailed and delivered in a voice that captures the narrator’s personality, setting, action, and the meaning behind the action. The way Brouwer frames the story with foreshadowing lends the tale the gravitas of a classic tragedy. Like the banyan tree steals the glory of its host tree by strangling the life out of it, so, Brouwer shows us, war and hatred and revenge and misunderstanding steal the glory of human lives.
A set of discussion questions at the end provides the reader with more entry points to the meaning and purpose of the story.
I received Thief of Glory from the publisher (via Blogging for books) for the purpose of writing a review.