Jan Terlouw: Winter in Wartime – Oorlogswinter (1972) Literature and War Readalong June 2013

Winter in Wartime

Dutch author Jan Terlouw’s award-winning novel Winter in Wartime  (Oorlogswinter), which has been made into a movie, is a book for YA. It tells the story of 15-year old Michiel and is set during the hunger winter, in the Netherlands in 1944.

Michiel lives in a Dutch village with his parents, older sister and younger brother. His father is the mayor of the village. Like the rest of the Netherlands, their village is occupied by the Germans. It’s obvious for everyone that the war will come to an end soon and that the Germans are losing it. However, instead of giving up, they intensify their hostile activities; they search houses, arrest, torture and shoot people.

The village is divided, some are collaborating, some are suspected to collaborate, while others are in the resistance. Michiel’s parents are anti-German; they are good people who try to help those who have less, as much as possible. Every night they open their doors to distant relatives, people on the run, displaced persons, provide shelter and food for one night. Uncle Ben who is in the resistance is one of the regulars.

Michiel has an outsider position. He isn’t really a child anymore but doesn’t seem old enough for resistance work. When Dirk, an older boy who has joined the resistnace, asks him to deliver a letter, should he not return from a mission, Michiel feels honoured.

That same day his father and a group of other people is arrested because someone has killed a German soldier. Some of the men who are arrested will be hanged. When Dirk doesn’t return and Michiel fails to hand over the letter, he opens it and discovers that Dirk has been hiding a wounded British pilot. What should he do now? Who will help him? Is there anyone he can trust? That’s what you will discover if you decide to read Winter in Wartime.

Towards the end of the book (p. 121) Michiel remembers something his father said

Michiel often thought of something his father once said: “In every war dreadful things happen. Don’t think that it is only the Germans who are guilty. The Dutch, the British, the French, every nation has murdered without mercy and perpetrated unbelievable tortures in times of war. That is why, Michiel, you shouldn’t allow yourself to be misled by the romance of war, the romance of heroic deeds, sacrifice, tension and adventure. War means wounds, sadness, torture, prison, hunger, hardship, and injustice. There is nothing romantic about it.”

This short paragraph is central and summarises the theme of the book. The novel looks exactly into this and tests it. While the story confirms that war is horrible, it still shows that heroism is possible. There will always be courageous and kind people in every war, people who will try to stay good and do good.

This is a book for young people and I was very interested to see how WWII would be handled. In all the resistance books and movies torture plays an important role. How would that be handled for children. I’d say Terlouw did a great job. He was explicit but not gruesome. Not for one second we think it may not have been as bad but still he isn’t too explicit.

Books for children and YA always have a message. A lot of that message is captured in the quote above but there is another central theme, which is illustrated too – not every German was bad. No people is bad as a whole.

I think Terlouw’s book is well done, it captures he Netherlands during the winter of 44 very well. The hunger, the masses of  fleeing people, the occupation, the suspicions, all this is well drawn. The tone isn’t depressing as the end of the war is in sight. Horrible things happen still but there is a lot of hope.

I saw the movie a few years ago that’s why I possibly didn’t like the novel as much as I would have if I hadn’t known the story already. It isn’t one of my favourite readalong titles but it’s still well worth reading and, as a children’s book, I’d say, it’s excellent.  Don’t miss it if you’re interested in WWII, occupied Holland, the Dutch resistance, and are looking for all of these topics done in a way that is appropriate for younger readers.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Iris (Iris on Books)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Movie review

Kevin (The War Movie Buff)


Winter in Wartime was the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the novel is Children of the New World aka Les enfants du nouevau monde on the war in Algeria by Algerian writer Assia Djebar. Discussion starts on Monday 29 July, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

35 thoughts on “Jan Terlouw: Winter in Wartime – Oorlogswinter (1972) Literature and War Readalong June 2013

  1. The first thing I thought when I saw this post was, “I can’t believe the month is over already.” Saying that, I didn’t get a chance to watch the movie. Where does the time go? I think I would find the novel interesting and I find this time period so captivating in an odd way.

    • Yeah, I know… In a few weeks we will be grabbing our copies of A Christmas Carol.
      It is interesting but I would recommend you watch the movie. I found the tone worked better for grownups.

      • Oh wow…what a coincidence…I was just about to write the same thing as TBM. Time flies sooo fast, although for this I entirely blame it on Collective Soul. I planned to watch it last week but that band kept me busy with memory and reading alot about them (I used to like them but I love them now so I have many news to catch up)

        Anyway, great review 🙂 I REALLY like that quote…very beautiful and TRUE.
        I will watch the movie this month and will link it here tho the month for tge readalong has over.

  2. Nice review, Caroline. I love the cover of the book. I don’t think I have read a YA book on war yet. This looks like a good place to start. I liked very much that passage that Michiel’s father spoke. Very powerful and thought-provoking. It is nice that this book has been made into a movie. I would love to watch it. I can’t believe that half of this year is already getting over. Time flies! Thanks for this beautiful review. I can’t wait to read your thoughts on next month’s title – the Algerian war in an interesting topic.

    • The time does fly. I saw Lizzy is already mentioning German Literature Month.:)
      I think it was interesting to see how such a difficult and painful topic is tackled for a younger audience.
      I like that quote very much and it really sums up the book.
      I liked the movie as well. But in this case, as there is some suspense once you’ve watched it or read it, the story loses impact.

  3. I really like the passage you quoted. It seems that people living in peacetime usually understand this but when war breaks out it so easily gets forgotten.

    I see why you asked if reading Dickens was odd this time of year! How did you find reading a book like this which seems so rooted in the winter season?

    • Summer has temporarily deserted us. After a major heat wave (98F° and more) the temperature has tubmled down to 53° – I guess that’s why it did work. Otherwise, it would have been odd.
      It’s nicely shown how Michiel has to discover for himself how much is courage and how much a misguided sense of adventure.
      I find people who joined the resistance were amazingly courageous.

    • We have never had such odd weather, from hot to cold like that…
      I think this is really a case of either you watch the movie or you read the book.
      Knowing the whol story takes away far too much.
      I’m glad you liked the film.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with this post. I’m glad you appreciated it even if seeing the movie first spoiled most of the suspence.

    And ugh, I wish we’d get an actual summer at one point or other!

    • Summer got snatched away from under our noses… It was too hot two weeks ago but now it’s like late autumn.
      I did apprciate it, I htink he did a great job, touching on a lot of different points but overall the message is very positive, very humane.
      I liked that.

  5. I meant to read the book, but my local library could not get it. Instead I reviewed the movie on my blog. Based on Caroline’s excellent review, it is apparent there are some differences between the movie and the book. I gathered from what Caroline writes that the parents in the book are much more involved in the Resistance than they are in the movie. (By the way, there is no younger brother in the movie.) Michiel’s father is not an ass-kisser like Shafter, but he is not using his home to aid the Underground. Caroline says: “Every night they open their doors to distant relatives, people on the run, displaced persons, provide shelter and food for one night.” This does not happen in the movie which is good because the movie widens the gulf between the father and the uncle. The movie also does not really show hardships like hunger affected the people. The movie does not spend a lot of time on the village dynamics.

    The movie is good, but not great. The director purposely made it more adult than the book, but it still comes across as aimed at teenagers although adults can certainly enjoy it.

    • Thanks a lot for that comment, Kevin.
      I have watched and reviewed it but such a long time ago, I couldn’t remember all of it.
      I thought the father was more involved than that.
      I also remember that it felt more grown-up.
      I thpught it was good but not as good as some other movies on the resistance.
      But it’s an amazing book for younger readers.

  6. Caroline,
    Back again. I’ve finally had a chance to read your review of the book. I appreciate that you highlighted the theme of the novel, because Terlouw conveyed it well. I do wish I could read some of his other novels, after reading Iris’s post about the book. I’ll have to see, but not many were published in the U.S., as far as I know, which is not far enough. I really must do a thorough search.

    I’m so glad I’ve been introduced to Iris–thanks to you!


    • Yes, Iris has a wonderful blog. I thought you knew it.
      I didn’t really look into Terlouw’s other novels. I’m not even sure whether he only wrote for YA. It’s not easy to write about a topic like this for a younger audience and still stay true to the facts.

  7. There is a wonderful short novel by Hans Keilson, ‘Comedy in A Minor Key’, about a young Dutch couple who hid a Jewish man in their house during the German occupation. Apparently quite a few Dutch families did this during WW 2.

    • We’ll be reading Keilson later this year for the read along (the Death of the Adversary) but I’m glad for other suggestions. Thanks.
      I think there were a few who did it, yes. Such a courageous thing to do in an occupied country.

  8. I thought this was well done, too, and for as heavy a tone and all the awful things going on it was not at all hard to read. It seems that almost all the YA novels I tend to read all have serious themes of some sort or another. I can see where watching the movie would lessen the impact of the book since you know what will happen. While I enjoyed it and thought it well done–I don’t really have strong feelings for it one way or another–I’m looking forward to the next book–I’ve not really read anything about Algeria before, so it will be interesting.

    • Well, I can’t say my feelings were very strong but I was glad I read it as I wanted to see how he would handle it.
      It’s a very accesible, easy read but I felt a bit too old for it.
      I look forward to the next one as I have a few of her books and never read anything by her. She’s such a highly acclaimed writer. It’s about time.

      • Thanks for linking to my review! I haven’t seen the movie, but I taped it awhile back, just haven’t watched it yet.

        I’m glad to see you liked this one, too. Michiel was such an interesting character, on one hand a child, on the other, wise beyond his years. I guess one had to grow up fast when living in an occupied country, with the fear of reprisals and starvation, etc. It definitely gets you thinking about the gray areas in war.

        As always, thanks for hosting!

        • My pleasure, Anna. I thought it was well done. Sure it was for younger readers but I was very interested to see how he would handle it.
          I’d be so interested to hear what you daughter thinks, should she ever read it. How do young people react to this.
          I suppose there were a lot of children in the Resistance.

  9. Pingback: Wrapping Up Dutch Lit Fortnight | Iris on Books

  10. It sounds like many books about France during WWII and I’m tired of those.
    Then I’ll ask my usual question : how old does the reader need to be? Btw the way, is there an accepted standard age to differentiate children and YA literature? Like up to 13, it’s considered as children lit or something.

    • Yes, I think there is but I don’t know the standard.
      Michiel is 15 but I’d say children from 12 on can certainly read it. There is violence but it’s not shown, just spoken about and that is toned down too. I’d have to ask Kevin who is aschool teacher. Or Judith who is specialized in children’s literature.

  11. I wondered how well the material would be handled, but it sounds like ultimately the book did what it set out to do. I always remember Audrey Hepburn suffering so dreadfully during the war from malnutrition. Her family survived on grass and turnips or something dreadful like that, and she was painfully thin for the rest of her life. Oh and that was in the Netherlands – sorry, that was the reason I thought of her.

    • I had no idea she lived in the Netherlands. The famine winter must have been incredibly tough to live through.
      I think he did a good job. Children will be introduced to the sad and horrible aspects of war without being traumatised.

  12. Pingback: Review: Winter in Wartime by Jan Terlouw | Diary of an Eccentric

  13. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong May 30 2014: Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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