Usually when I finish a non-fiction book, I’m a little awed. This makes sense if you think about it, because nobody is going to take the time to write a story about something boring. Writers pick the interesting and amazing stuff, the suspenseful and scary stuff. It may even be heroic and humbling. Diet Eman’s stories of the German occupied Netherlands during WWII are all that and more. In Things We Couldn’t Say, she tells of her life as a young woman in the Nazi occupied Netherlands and how she and her fiancée, Hein Sietsma, and their friends worked to hide Jews with the Dutch underground resistance.
Eman is a resident of Grand Rapids, which makes her my neighbor. She is not a professional writer and this definitely comes through in the book. She’s also not a native English speaker and I often felt like the book may have been better served if she had written it in Dutch and had it professionally translated. BUT, I also have to admit, that these same facts also added to the realization that she is a real person and these are her real stories. The rawness of the writing helped the rawness of the story come through.
The story begins in 1938 when Eman meets Sietsma. When the occupation begins and her Jewish co-worker needs a place to hide, she and Sietsma help him out of The Hague and into the country to a safe house. With this, they begin their resistance work. Throughout the course of the war, both will undergo numerous name changes and will have to change residences multiple times, doing different jobs for the resistance along the way. Both will be imprisoned. They will be separated almost the entire time, their story told through letters, journal entries and first person narrative by Eman. At the end of the war, Eman learns Sietsma died in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
[Normally this is where I start my “ratings”, but it feels disrespectful to trivialize Eman’s life experience with my silly little rating system. However, I use the rating structure to shape my thoughts while I’m building the review, so I am going to include those thoughts here anyway.]
Tears Shed Factor –I cannot imagine living through what Eman and her countrymen lived through--what any occupied people lived through during the war years. This book is about the horrors of war and the heartbreak that comes with that. It’s also a book about love—Eman and Sietsma’s love, and also mankind’s love for each other. It’s about doing the right thing when it’s most needed. And as a reader, you will feel that love and hurt and heartbreak all over when you read this book.
Distraction Factor – Eman’s stories will haunt you for a long time. As I read, I would reflect on stressful or frightening times in my own life and then I’d realize that they were nothing compared to what Eman and her countrymen faced. I cannot imagine life under those circumstances and yet she makes it clear that faith and love saw her through those tough times and it inspired me to know how someone can suffer so much and keep going. It’s a story of resilience and triumph as much as it is about hardship and pain.
Enrichment Factor –We all know the basics about WWII, but aside from knowing that it happened, I’ve never read anything like Eman’s stories of the Dutch resistance and the underground movement to hide Jews, it’s a personal first hand account of the front lines of a very important part of history.
Writing Skills Factor – Like many memoir authors, Diet Eman is not really a writer. Nor is she a native English speaker, so at times the writing style, word choice or organization is distracting. Some of my book club members had a very hard time with the journal entries and prayers scattered throughout, finding them distracting as well.
Bad Ass Babe Factor – 15—I have never before given a book character higher than a 10 in this category, and I sincerely I hope no one finds this rating factor offensive for this particular book, because I mean it in the highest respect. Diet Eman is a true heroine, not only for her wartime deeds, but also for re-living them and writing them down for the world to share.