Title: The Book Runner
Author: Devin Murphy
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Delfzijl, the Netherlands
No. of Pages: 380
Publication, Date: Harper Perennial, September 2017
In the tradition of All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, comes an incandescent debut novel about a young Dutch man who comes of age during the perilousness of World War II.
Beginning in the summer of 1939, fourteen-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem.
On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory.
When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within the secret missions of the German Navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life—and his life’s mission—forever.
Epic in scope and featuring a thrilling narrative with precise, elegant language, The Boat Runner tells the little-known story of the young Dutch boys who were thrown into the Nazi campaign, as well as the brave boatmen who risked everything to give Jewish refugees safe passage to land abroad. Through one boy’s harrowing tale of personal redemption, here is a novel about the power of people’s stories and voices to shine light through our darkest days, until only love prevails.
14-year-old Jacob Koopman leads a relatively simple life in Delfzjil, a town in Holland. Jacob’s father is a light bulb designer and manufacturer whose factory is the town’s main source of employment; his older brother, Edwin, is a talented artist; and his mother plays the piano at home and the organ at church. They even have a dog!
The family’s affluence and status are what kept Jacob away from what was happening outside the four walls of his home. When the brothers were sent to spend the summer at a Hitler Youth camp in Germany, Jacob hardly batted an eyelid. During their stay at the camp, Jacob unwittingly succeeds at the war games which resulted in getting praised by the older boys and is honoured with a shiny dagger. He had been none the wiser.
Despite witnessing the bombing of Rotterdam, Jacob still felt they would be fine if it was the Germans approaching. He truly believed that nothing would happen to them; after all, they were the dagger-carrying members of the youth camps. The cracks only began to form after he witnessed the accidental death of his brother who was pulled underwater by a current through a manhole, that something in Jacob began to shift.
Shattered and suffering from survivor’s guilt, he starts working on his Uncle Martin’s fishing boat, which has been conscripted by the Germans. His uncle wears their uniform and is regarded by the townspeople with suspicion, but Jacob only discovers his uncle’s true nature one night as they ferry a boatload of Nazis from one harbour to another. His uncle had manoeuvred the unsuspecting soldiers into a small area of the boat before shooting them in cold blood.
This incident is where the moral landscape begins to shift and appears more evident. What Jacob’s uncle sees as part of the war effort to rebel against the invading Germans, Jacob sees as murder. Again, he had been trained in the Hitler Youth camp with all the boys who became men like those his uncle had massacred. And it had been the British Royal Air Force who had dropped bombs on occupied Delfzjil, not the occupying Germans. To Jacob, the Royal Air Force should be driven out, not the Nazis.
Desperate to belong somewhere again, Jacob decides to join the German military. He blindly believes they will win the war and wants the fighting to end so his life can return to normal. Or something that resembles normal. By the time he recalls what he has done, he flinches but acknowledges that his decisions had been “naive but conscious”.
What I thought about the book
I had been on my historical fiction reading spree so The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy became yet another choice of literature to accompany me for the next few days. Again, it took me only a couple of days to finish it as each chapter kept me wanting to know what happens next.
So yes, in another person’s eyes, it may yet be another World War 2 novel but there were three things about the story that I liked:
A Different Gender’s Perspective
Most of the World War 2 novels that I’ve read had more often than not been told from a female’s perspective. This time it was coming from a male. The Boat Runner was narrated through the eyes of Jacob Koopman, the main character, who was only 14 years old at the time when the Nazis swept into his town in Holland.
A Lack Of Romance (And A Good Thing Too!)
Apart from that one bit of lust from Jacob towards his childhood friend Hilda, there was hardly any romance which was a breath of fresh air. Usually, there would be a man and a woman who are so caught up in their relationship in the midst of war that they find themselves at the mercy of whoever conquers their nation.
A Different Country Setting
For once the plot wasn’t centred in Poland, Germany or France. It was all the way in a small town called Delfzjil in Holland, which Jacob Koopman left by boat when he got tired of being used as a toy for the Germans’ propaganda.
Jacob may eventually learn how far his Nazi brethren was willing to go, yet even as he got older, he doesn’t thoroughly understand his involvement with the Germans. It was only due to the guilt of having survived whereas his brother had not that left little room for a deeper exploration of the role he played. He had lost his family as a consequence of the war, though not by deliberate extinction.
However, I won’t deny that I occasionally felt annoyed at Jacob from time to time for his naivety and for blindly trusting the Germans. Although at 14 years old, you’d hardly know who to trust apart from yourself. But I would say that it was probably due to his sheltered life and affluent upbringing that led to his failure to notice the true colours of the Nazis until it was too late.