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The novel opens with the arrival of German submarines in the waters surrounding Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, an island inhabited by the Dutch off the coast of Venezuela. (Shmoop note: The Dutch aren't native to the island, though they have controlled it since 1634. Learn more about the history of the island here.)
The narrator, we learn, was asleep in his house in Willemstad.
We get a date: February 1942. Sounds like World War II to us.
The submarines are attacking oil refineries on Aruba, the island west of Curaçao, and some small oil tankers.
The narrator is not so much scared as excited. He wants to go to Fort Amsterdam to look for enemy U-boats (German submarines) and shake his fist at them with the other people, but his mother tells him he has to stay home. School has been cancelled.
More information: our narrator's name is Phillip.
While his mother is busy, Phillip takes off with his friend Henrik van Boven, who is Dutch. The boys head to the fort, where they had played when they were much younger, pretending to defend the island from pirates or British invaders.
The boys then head to a bridge over the channel, but there are no ships there.
Henrik, whose Dad is with the government, tells Phillip that almost nothing is left of Aruba. Phillip finds Henrik's know-it-all attitude a bit irritating.
Phillip says he bets the Navy is on the way. Henrik asks, "Our Navy?" (1.22). Phillip says no. He means the American Navy. We learn that Phillip and his family are American.
An army officer orders everyone off the Queen Emma bridge.
Phillip returns home and his mother is upset when he tells her where he's been. She shakes him and holds him.
Phillip's mother, unlike Henrik's, is a nervous woman. She always fears he'll be hurt.
Phillip's dad, also named Phillip, gets home from work from the refinery. His mother says not to bother him.
Phillip and his dad used to be pretty tight – hiking and fishing and sailing – but he's been pretty busy lately.
Phillip asks his dad if the Germans will shoot at them tonight. His dad doesn't know but says he wants Phillip and his mother to sleep downstairs.
Phillip's mother comes in and tells him not to ask so many questions. His dad says he has a right to know.
Phillip's mom, he tells us, did not want to come to the island from her home in Virginia. His dad brought them, though, so he could work for Royal Dutch Shell as an expert in refineries – all for the war effort.
Phillip's mother often talks about their home in Virginia. Phillip was only 7 when they came to the Caribbean. There's some distance now between his mother and father.
Phillip asks his father why they don't bomb the submarines. Phillip's father tells him it's because they have no such weapons on the island.