Desert Isle Keeper
The Dutch Girl
American Historicals—particularly those set during the American Revolution—have always been of particular interest to me. I love the time period, love learning more about that war, and I particularly enjoy getting a glimpse of what my home, the northeast part of the United States, looked like back then. The Dutch Girl offered a different look at Revolutionary America than I’d seen before, as it shone a light on the old Dutch patroonships of the colonies.
Anna Winters—once known as Annatje Hoppe—is minding her own business running a ladies finishing school in New York when a mysterious woman shows up at her school knowing far too much about Anna’s past. The woman introduces herself as Kate Grey, successor to The Widow, a crafty spy to whom Anna owed a debt. Kate is now managing The Widow’s old Rebel spy network, and she needs Anna’s help securing a particular piece of land by the Hudson known as Harenwyck for the Rebels. It’s strategically significant, but Kate knows that an outsider will have difficulty ingratiating themselves with the landowner, as this is deep within Dutch territory. In fact, Harenwyck is the very patroonship where Anna grew up, and from which she fled ten years earlier. The old patroon has died, and the son who’s inherited won’t recognize her, making Anna the perfect choice to accept a post as governess there. She’ll understand the Dutch that’s spoken behind closed doors, and should be able to convince the patroon to side with the Rebels.
Unfortunately, although the plan seems nice and tidy to Kate, it’s much more complex from Anna’s point of view. Patroonship society truly harkens back to the feudal system of the middle ages, where lords would collect hefty tithes from their farmers and use those to line their pockets, whilst the tenant farmers lived in abject poverty, too poor to risk moving elsewhere. Ten years ago Anna’s father led a rebellion against this system with the help of The Widow, and was subsequently hanged for it, while Anna was made to flee after accidentally killing one of the patroon’s henchmen.
To further complicate matters, there’s a bit of a war going on within this particular patroonship before Anna arrives. The old patroon, Cornelis Van Haren, had two sons, Gerrit and Andries. Gerrit and Anna fell in love long ago, bonding in part over their reformer ideals. Gerrit, who is the elder of the two, was marched off to school in Amsterdam just before the tenants’ revolution, but has come back now and intends to take ownership of the patroonship and finally give or sell land to the tenants, so that they might be free. However, while his brother was away Andries took control of the patroonship and convinced the Rebel courts that their father’s will named Andries as successor. Thus, even though his beliefs are in line with the Rebels’, Gerrit has turned to the British to back his claim as patroon and lend him enough men to overthrow his brother.
This is rather a lot of detail to take in all at once, but as it’s doled out in pieces over the course of the book it’s much more manageable. Harenwyck really is its own isolated little world. Watching Anna—or Annatje, as she is at heart—return to it is like fitting a missing piece into a puzzle. Dutch patroonships were important in settling the colonies, but not something I knew much about, so it was wonderful to get such a close look at one.
The Dutch Girl has much more to offer than an interesting setting, though. Anna, Gerrit, and Andries are all richly drawn characters, but more, they all have distinctly different viewpoints about the same issue. Anna sees it through the eyes of someone who’s already lived through a revolution, Gerrit as a wide-eyed revolutionary bent on making everything fair and everyone free, and Andries sees the patroonship as a good patroon does—he sees himself as a caretaker to the tenants, and is doing his best to make their lives better. The debate in this book isn’t too far from what you might see in your own household when relatives get together and discuss modern political issues, the only difference being that these two brothers are trying to gather armies to back their opinions. There is no true villain here.
Although I haven’t said much to this point about the romance between Anna and Gerrit, it is by no means underdeveloped. They are young lovers finally reunited, and for the most part pick up where they left off. The two spend their fair share of time catching up on the past ten years but they always feel in sync with one another. Anna’s return to Harenwyck is a return to the place in the world where she belongs, where she just fits. Coming back to Gerrit, who had an Annatje-shaped hole in his life, is a part of that.
Every time I write a DIK review—which isn’t that often—I find myself mentioning my cardinal DIK rule, which is: In order to be worthy of such a status, I must know almost immediately that I will reread this book. Why bring something with you to a desert island if you only want to read it once? In the case of The Dutch Girl, I knew the second I sat down to review it, because with every sentence I write the compulsion to revisit the book grows stronger. I love stories of young lovers reunited, but more importantly I was completely drawn in by the action in this tale. The nonromantic storyline here was just as vital and exciting as the romance, which makes it well worth another read to my mind.