Review by Randolph Marcus (PCV/Ethiopia 1966-68)
STEPHEN C. JOSEPH, A PEDIATRICIAN with extensive medical experience in developing countries, has written an historical fiction novel surrounding two unrelated famines in the Netherlands in the last months of World War II and in Ethiopia in the mid-eighties. He brings these seemingly disparate events together in an unusual format: a series of first person essays by members of two families — the Dutch Vermeers and the American Rileys. In this short but engaging book, Joseph displays a talent for becoming the characters whose voices carry the story forward.
Each chapter appears as a journal entry and alternates between generations and the two families. The story begins with 18-year old Christina Vermeer’s account of her life as a young girl during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She describes in simple but evocative detail the fear, deprivation, and brutality that the Dutch experienced. However, as bad as the German occupation was, the situation got worse in late 1944 as allied forces advanced through France and Belgium towards the Netherlands. In September, the Nazis imposed a food embargo in retaliation for a railroad strike, causing a severe famine that lasted until liberation in early May 1945. Known as the Hunger Winter, it is a relatively obscure episode in the vast panorama of WWII, but it killed 20,000 Dutch citizens. Christina’s father, a middle level manager in the railroad had to disappear before being arrested, leaving her and her mother Freddi to cope with the mounting food shortages. As Christina describes it, they survived thanks to: “(1) the bicycle; (2) the courage of Dutch women who rode most of the bicycles, (3) the fact that the Hunger Winter contained little or no snow; (4) the Food Airlift by the British and the Americans, which came very late, but just in time to save us.”
It is via this last factor that Joseph introduces us to the Riley family. Jacob Riley, a Kansas all-American boy, son of an Irish immigrant dad who worked his way from New York to Topeka, joins the US Army Air Force as a B-17 pilot. After multiple bombing missions over Germany under the most harrowing conditions, Jacob flies a humanitarian food drop over the Netherlands during the last week of the war in Europe and barely survives a crash that kills the rest of the crew. Nearly 40 years later, Jacob’s son, Jake, and Christina’s daughter, Elsa, meet in the most unlikely of circumstances—both working in very different capacities for a Canadian relief organization in Ethiopia during famine of the mid-eighties. No spoiler alert is needed since it is clear from the outset that the two families will converge. What makes the book highly readable are the personal stories related in each chapter as the Vermeers and the Rileys move on with their lives.
Joseph’s talent is portraying each character in his or her own distinctive manner while giving the reader a compelling sense of time and place. Christina talks about her experiences in the voice of a precocious 12-year old, who like many of her generation grew up all too fast, learning quickly how to minimize contact with the Germans while acquiring food scrounging skills during the Hunger Winter. Christina’s mother, Freddi Vermeer, describes life during the occupation in graphic terms. “What the Germans were good at was making noise—clomping boots, banging on doors and tables, shouting orders, ramming engines. And pushing people, pushing people out of the way.” However, she says the worst part of the occupation was the fear.
Fear based upon real things—men pulled off the streets, never to be seen again. House doors bashed open in the middle of the night, fierce dogs barking and snapping and bright flashlights flicking. Husbands and wives dragged off, children left standing in the doorways in their nightshirts. Fear, watching Jews beaten in the streets, forced to scrub the streets on their knees, and then disappearing in their turn, in silence and resignation.
The Riley clan lived in very different circumstances. It’s the quintessential poor-immigrant-to prosperous-family story. The patriarch, Matt Riley, born in poverty in Ireland, makes good in the new world of Oklahoma and Kansas by ingenuity, talent, and a boundless sense of optimism. His son Jacob struggles to right his life and succeeds after his near death experience in the Netherlands. He and his wife raise a resourceful son, Jake, who sets out to explore the world beyond Kansas by driving big rigs in the US, Europe, and finally in Ethiopia.
Each family member tells his or her own story in his own unique way, sometimes folksy, sometimes humorous, but always down to earth. Each story leads logically to the next until the third generation pediatrician Elsa Vermeer-Evans and truck driver Jake Riley meet in Ethiopia in 1982.
Joseph, a Peace Corps doctor in Nepal, worked in more than 40 other countries including Ethiopia. Possibly his medical training has given keen powers of observation. His depiction of the most mundane aspects of life in Ethiopia through the reminiscences of Jake and Elsa brought back vivid memories of my time in country as a Peace Corps teacher in the mid-sixties. Describing Addis Ababa, Jake exclaims —
I loved it. I loved the sky, the surrounding mountains, the sprawling dirty squalling smiling city, the laughing shoeless ragged kids, the grave self-possessed but helpful adults, the startling tasters and the smells and sights and sounds. [But] there was another side, a darker side. There were beggars in the shadows of the streets—blind, starving, hobbling on a wooden crutch, or sitting on a rag in the dirt, with an exposed leg that ended at the knee, or a face that had no nose on it. Ragged mothers holding out reedy bundles of babies with pus in their eyes, young boys leading blind men, each holding one end of the same long stick. Scrambled markets with flies everywhere on the produce, where you had to be sure that you and your wallet were still together.
It’s all very real. I kept a small diary during my two-year stint as a volunteer and witnessed every one of Riley’s observations. He just says it more straightforwardly and simply that I ever did.
Joseph sets the Ethiopia portion of his tale in a missionary hospital near Hosaina, southwest of Addis Ababa. Although the medical staff is often overwhelmed by the growing influx of patients, this region was not the most severely drought stricken part of the country at the time. More than 400.000 people died from starvation and related illnesses, mainly in the northern provinces of Tigray and Wollo. The high death toll was exacerbated to a great degree by various insurgencies against the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Famine, War and Love is an unusual and perhaps improbable confluence of coincidences. The narratives are captivating, and along the journey, the reader gets to learn a little bit about some lesser-known but fascinating history.
Randolph Marcus taught secondary school students in Asella, Ethiopia in the mid-sixties before joining the Foreign Service in 1969. During his diplomatic career, he served in (then) South Vietnam, Togo, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina as well as in Washington, DC. Following his retirement from the State Department, Mr. Marcus worked for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Defense Department as a counterterrorism analyst. He is currently serving as treasurer on the board of directors of Ethiopia & Eritrea Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.