In 1975 a movie was made of the popular biography The Hiding Place. Covering the horrific events of the Nazi’s occupation of the Netherlands, the narrative tells what happened to Corrie ten Boom and her family as members of the Dutch resistance. Chasing Shadows is a fictionalized account based on other stories of WWII resistance fighters in the Netherlands and the people they helped during the long years of the occupation.
The book begins with a prologue in which Lena de Vries learns the war has ended - but the knowledge is bittersweet. Half her family is missing, possibly killed by the Nazis. While the “shadow people” living in a small cupboard behind a hidden compartment in her home can come out and the men hiding out in her barn no longer have to fade into the woods every time a truck passes the farm, the nation is so destitute they might all starve in spite of finally being free.
Then we go back several years and meet young Ans de Vries. As Lena’s oldest daughter, she knows what is expected of her - to marry some young man from her small village, attend her grandfather’s church every Sunday and sit through his boring (to her) sermons and never experience life beyond her tiny farming community. She mutinously rejects it all and heads to the city of Leiden, where she becomes a companion to Eloise Huizenga. During the last war Eloise lost her entire family when the Germans invaded Belgium, and she has suffered from severe depression ever since. Her husband Herman fears that the news that Germany is once more invading neighboring countries will cause Eloise to suffer a breakdown and wants Ans to watch over her and make sure Eloise doesn’t hurt herself.
Ans loves the city, and being companion to Eloise means she visits exciting places like museums and coffee shops, as well as meeting interesting people such as Miriam Jacobs and her father, Jewish- German refugees who are staying with the Huizengas while they get settled in their new community. Miriam has a young man, Avraham Leopold, and watching her joy at being in love makes Ans long for that as well. And it may just happen for her – a blind date with handsome police officer Erik Brouwer has her believing that marriage and a comfortable life in the big city are all within her grasp.
The Dutch are expecting this second war with Germany will be similar to the first. The Netherlands will make a brief show of force, proving they can defend themselves, but they will stay neutral and watch from the sidelines as the rest of Europe does battle. Only it doesn’t work out that way and the Nazi occupation is worse than Lena, Ans or Miriam could ever have imagined.
The author does an absolutely fantastic job of capturing what life during war time must have been like. We watch as at first Lena, Ans, Eloise and Miriam listen to the news with concern but primarily focus on their present. For Eloise that means working the farm with her husband Pieter and taking care of her two younger children while worrying (and praying) over Ans. For Eloise, it means entertaining and watching over Miriam and Ans. She delights in having two beautiful young women around and gets caught up in making sure they have all they need to be successful adults. As for Ans and Miriam, they are busy enjoying the delights of Leiden and falling in love, although for Miriam it is all a bit disconcerting. Having lived through the early portion of the Germans’ persecution of the Jews, she is aware of how badly things will go for her, her father and Avraham if the Nazis declare war on the Netherlands, but she takes comfort in her friends’ confidence that it won’t happen. Ms. Austin does a nice job of juxtaposing their ordinary, happy days with the subtle tension the reader feels from knowing what’s coming.
Ans, Eloise and Miriam show themselves to be resilient, strong women once the invasion occurs. Eloise, despite her mental fragility, determines to fight. She and Ans join the resistance effort, starting with an illegal protest and continuing on through working with/for the underground newspaper, hiding Jewish families and couriering dangerous messages. I loved them both, especially Ans, who is on the cusp of seeing her dreams come true but who is ready to sacrifice everything, including Erik, to do what is right.
Miriam knows her days of happiness are numbered once the Nazis take over, but she determines to live however long she has with joy and courage. She and Avraham get married and start building a life together, knowing they may be pulled apart at any moment. They try to emigrate, but no one is accepting Jewish refugees, and this is another area in which the author’s skill shines. The heartache of being hated and unwanted and in peril where they are and yet not being welcomed anywhere else is communicated so beautifully through Avraham’s and Miriam’s struggles, and I was so pleased that Ms. Austin showed how America’s turning away boats filled with German-Jewish refugees added so drastically to their struggle for survival.
Lena was the only character I struggled to relate to. I could understand her not wanting to get involved with fighting the Germans - she had young children to protect - but I disliked the way she had no interest in the world beyond her front porch. She was the epitome of the person who thinks her simple, provincial life is perfect and is suspicious of those who don’t. Fortunately, she changed a lot during the narrative.
The author covers all the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the extreme hardship that led to for the Dutch people with clarity, if not graphic detail. I finished the book slightly exhausted, feeling she had done such a good job of capturing the anxiety and danger and difficulty of that time that I had in some small way lived through it just by reading this book.
The religiosity level of this novel is very high. God’s will for the believer in difficult times, how we are to love our enemy while still fighting against what they stand for, self-sacrifice and trusting God through hard times are themes that run heavily throughout the book. Prayers, sermons and bible reading are important to all three women and are engaged in frequently on page. Avraham and Pieter are also deeply devout.
The author does do a good job of showing non-believers as part of the resistance movement as well, though and Avraham and Miriam remain true to their Jewish faith with no effort whatsoever made to convert them.
My only complaint is that the book had a slightly slow start but once the story got going it was riveting.
Chasing Shadows is a lovely, intense, emotional look at the horrors of war and the joy and comfort that can be found in faith and friends even during the worst of times. Readers of Inspirational romance looking for a poignant and meaningful read should absolutely pick this up.
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