The Dutch Wife
by Ellen Keith
Patrick Crean Editions
In a way, it was all meant to be. When Ellen Keith graduated from Bellerose more than a decade ago, she was set up to study European history and creative writing at the University of Alberta. At that time, when she was interviewed by the St. Albert Gazette she told of her fondness for Europe, already having travelled there three times. She also had hopes to combine her love of travel with writing historical fiction.
The Dutch Wife, just released last month, is a really marvellous piece of historical fiction, one that sheds light into a piece of the Second World War that doesn’t always make the front pages of other history books: prostitutes in Nazi labour camps combined with the heartbreaking truths of ‘the disappeared’ in Argentina’s state-sponsored terrorism of the 1970s.
Heavy stuff for sure, but important to recount. What was even more important to Keith was to do so faithfully to the truth.
“Due to its historical nature and sensitive subject matter, the novel demanded a lot of research,” she said. Although the story is fictional the characters reflect “the very real trauma” experienced by the women who served in the Second World War concentration camp brothels and ‘the disappeared’ in the Argentine Dirty War, Keith said.
That war, she added, saw roughly 30,000 people who were abducted, tortured, and often killed under the military junta from roughly the mid-1970s to early 1980s.
“I knew I had to handle these stories with great care and respect. Among other sources, I consulted witness testimonies about the detainment centres in Argentina and about Buchenwald Concentration Camp. At times, I had difficulty writing about such dark material, but I really wanted to portray a different side of the concentration camps, one that not many people know existed.”
True to her own nature as one fascinated with exploring other countries, she also visited Amsterdam, the Ravensbrück and Buchenwald Concentration Camps, and Buenos Aires, all locations where her novel takes place.
World travel and the accompanying jet lag was the easy part, however. She said that writing and revising the novel took nine full drafts, the first of which resulted in her cutting out 150 pages that contained two major plotlines, a process that took six whole months.
It was all for the story’s ultimate benefit, and it worked.
The book focuses on three main characters, starting with Dutch resistance fighter Marijke de Graaf. As the Nazis are finishing off taking control of Amsterdam, she and her husband are arrested but sent to different concentration camps in Germany. Without knowing her husband’s fate, she must choose between the labour camp and a slow, agonizing death or join the camp brothel and possibly survive.
Once there, we get a glimpse into the head of Karl Müller, an SS officer who becomes conflicted when Marijke enters his life. We then skip a few decades to 1977 when Argentine journalism student Luciano Wagner is branded a political dissident after attending some student protests. He, like Marijke, is taken and abused in captivity. Everyone must find a way to persevere against the inhumanities they face.
"The novel weaves together these narratives in a story about resistance, collaboration, and the difficult choices people make in order to survive."
The manuscript was initially her master’s thesis. Completing a thesis is usually reward enough but then she won the 2016 HarperCollinsPublishersLtd/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction for it. The award came with an agent, a publishing deal, and a new hardcover on the horizon.
As if the cake wasn’t sweet enough already, there’s metaphorical icing and even some sprinkles: earlier this month, the novel moved up to the #1 spot for Canadian fiction on the Globe and Mail bestseller list and #2 for fiction overall. HarperCollins Canada has also sold the international publishing rights to the United States, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Serbia.
Not bad for a writer who just turned 29.
While she lives in Amsterdam now, local audiences can flip their calendars ahead a few months. Keith is scheduled to make an appearance at the St. Albert Public Library on Friday, Sept. 14. She will be interviewed by Laurel Deedrick-Mayne.