Jan de Hartog, one of those rare talents who wrote well in two languages, was best known in his native Netherlands for Holland's Glory, a nautical tale that was hugely popular among the Dutch as they endured Nazi occupation in World War II. But in the United States, where he eventually relocated, he is remembered most fondly for his historical novels about the Quakers, particularly The Peaceable Kingdom.
When de Hartog died in 2002 at 88, he left behind an exquisite short memoir about his mother's death, now published as A View of the Ocean. It offers insight into his own decision in midlife to join the Society of Friends, but its more important theme is universal: how we can come to terms with losing our parents, learning more about both them and ourselves in the process.
De Hartog was lucky in his parents. His father was a famous Protestant minister and university professor who spoke out against the Nazis; his mother was a woman of gentle mien and steel spine who did heroic work among her fellow prisoners in a Japanese detainment camp in Dutch Indonesia during the war. Both were devoted Christians who truly lived their beliefs. But de Hartog's experiences in the war pushed him toward cynicism and doubt.
His widowed mother Lucretia's difficult death from stomach cancer at 79 helped him find his way back to their faith. A View of the Ocean does not spare us the pain and near-madness she suffered, nor his own emotional extremes. De Hartog's description of his mother's last days is wrenching, but it is also uplifting in the best sense. As he nursed his mother, de Hartog had a kind of spiritual epiphany, all the more striking for being incomprehensible to him as it happened. He only came to understand its significance following her death, as he got to know her Quaker friends. Her death, in all its agony, brought him to what Quaker founder George Fox called an infinite ocean of light and love. Even if you don't share de Hartog's beliefs, you'll be moved by his honest and beautiful testimony. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.