Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
I’ve read a lot of buzz in recent months on social media about Monica Hesse’s novel, Girl in the Blue Coat, set in Amsterdam in World War II. I downloaded the MP3 audio-book version to my phone from our public library’s free Overdrive collection (Are you doing this? Why are you not doing this?), and I plowed right through it. I highly recommend the audiobook format so you can hear proper Dutch pronunciation, and, as a bonus, there is an interview with the author only available at the end of the audio version. This book certainly fits into the “historical fiction” genre, but it’s also a fantastic read for mystery fans. If you enjoyed any of Ruta Sepetys’ novels, specifically Between Shades of Gray or Salt to the Sea, Hesse’s, Girl in the Blue Coat is for you.
Hesse’s main character, Hanneke, isn’t Jewish, but the war has left her a ghost of her former playful self anyway. She mourns the death of her first love, Bas, who was killed in battle, as she delivers black market items, like coffee and cigarettes, to people in Amsterdam who can still afford these luxuries. While going through her usual daily motions, Hanneke stops at the home of the elderly Mrs. Janssen. The old woman makes an usual request of Hanneke: to help locate a young Jewish girl named Mirjam who mysteriously vanished from a secret hiding place in Mrs. Janssen’s house. Hanneke reluctantly begins to search for Mirjam, knowing the risk to her own life if she questions the wrong people. Almost immediately, Hanneke is thrown into the underground Resistance Movement led by Bas’ brother, and she realizes her mission to save one girl pales in comparison to their efforts to save thousands.
Twists and turns abound in this book, and you’ll ask yourself again and again, “Why would Mirjam do that?” You’ll sympathize with Hanneke, too, who is hesitant to help because of the loss she has already suffered. Her search for Mirjam forces her to address her true character and whether she has the bravery she so admired in Bas.
Typewriters and Imperfection
I thoroughly enjoyed the author interview at the end of the audiobook. In it, Monica Hesse speaks about her desire to write about relationships– specifically friendships– during the war. One such relationship central to the novel is the friendship between Mirjam and her best friend Amalia. The two girls write notes to one another and fold them into stars in order to prevent prying eyes from reading their secrets. I immediately latched onto this idea for my plot driven experience. This book is so overwhelmingly sad, and in response to reading it, I wanted to share happiness and appreciation with some of my own friends.
The first thing I did was pull out my old Remington Portable typewriter from storage. I was inspired to buy this relic on eBay after viewing an episode of CBS Sunday Morning a few years ago which I highly recommend you watch here. In the episode, a high school English teacher speaks about using typewriters with his students. He says that his students use “more craft” when composing with a typewriter. And one of the students says she feels more like a “real writer” when she uses a typewriter. I identify with both of these statements. I feel like I am my truest self when I write with a typewriter because I can’t go back and second guess what I have written. My friends definitely deserved to read letters written from my unedited heart.
The other reason I chose to write my letters with a typewriter is because I knew I would make mistakes. You read that correctly. I knew I wasn’t going to write a flawless letter to any of my friends, and I promised myself I wouldn’t use whiteout to correct any of my errors. I explained in my letters that I, like the letters I wrote, am far from perfect. I expressed gratitude that my friends love me despite my flaws; therefore, a typewriter is the perfect tool to use to honor a friend who accepts you, “warts” and all.
Next, I scoured the web for instructions on how to fold paper into a star pattern. I messed up pretty royally on my first attempts, but I continued to tell myself that this whole experience was a lesson in accepting my imperfections. It was hard, folks. I strive for precision most of the time, and I really had to force myself not to redo everything I botched.
I’m preparing to mail my letters tomorrow, and I have a happy heart knowing some of my favorite people will receive notes I carefully crafted on a typewriter. As Monica Hesse reminds us in Girl in the Blue Coat, we can choose to do good or evil in this world. I choose good.
Next week, I’ll write about Goodbye Days by Jeff Zenter, the heart-breaking book that inspired this blog.
Thanks for reading,