Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Way of a Boy


58 of 60: The Way of a Boy (Ernest Hillen). Before you even think of smirking about the cover of this book, I should warn you: don't. You'll hate yourself for it later.

The title's not so snappy either, so you'd never know by looking at it what a fascinating book this is.

Ernest Hillen, of Dutch descent and now grown, tells the story of being interned by the Japanese army in World War II: living --starting at 10 years old--in camps in Indonesia with his mother and older brother. When the book opens, the father has already been taken to a camp. Ernest, Jerry, and their mother have been living on their own...until the Japanese come for them too. Eventually Jerry is taken to a separate camp for "men" (at age 13), leaving Ernest and his mother, and whomever other captives they manage to befriend.

This is a survival story, and it quickly becomes apparent that Hillen, even as a young boy, is able to develop little projects for himself (a hallmark of survivors) and thus distract himself from his own captivity:
I sat down in the dark in front of our door and exercised my calf muscles.
I did this in quiet moments ....strength mattered.; calves had become
important.

It's an endearing quality. He's a worthy companion, not only to his friends in the camp and his mother (a formidable and scrupulously good person, no surprise) but to readers as well. I often wonder what wartime means on a daily [food, shelter] basis. Hillen gives us a good idea:
An adult's bed space was just under 24 inches, a child's under 20 inches.
So on about 44 inches, my mother and I slept, ate, and kept our clothes, spoons,
mugs and bowls. She and I also had a fork, and our small lidded tin with four
tablespoons of brown sugar we'd saved up. We would have had more but she had
bartered three spoons and half a spool of thread for a brassiere sewn from a tea
towel.
These glimpses are, of course, interspersed with unavoidable accounts of captor cruelty and deaths (by violence, starvation, inadvertent poisoning). Somehow, this is not as depressing as it should be. I think that's because little Ernest is so good at focusing on other, more human and positive details. Through it all, his essential spirit perseveres, which is quite an accomplishment.
Luck played its part too: The Hillen family was reunited in 1946 in Canada. Well worth reading.