Study Guide

Postcards from No Man's Land Analysis

  • Tone

    Morbid But Hopeful

    From pretty much the beginning of the book, we know that Jacob dies during World War II—we're just not sure exactly how it happens. It's almost like we're reading the book backwards, since we already know what happens because the younger Jacob tells us he's there to visit his grandpa's grave.

    However, it's not until the end that we begin to understand the meaning of all the morbid overtones. When Geertrui realizes she wants to confess her affair with Jacob to Sarah, she's got no time left herself, thanks to terminal stomach cancer and a set date for her own euthanasia. Daan and Tessel have to come to terms with the fact that Geertrui is in so much pain she'd rather die than keep on suffering, while Jacob knows the truth about his grandpa will crush his grandma, but thinks he should tell her anyway. Not exactly light stuff, is it?

    Sometimes, Geertrui uses what she knows now to tell us about what was happening then. Take the moment she leaves her folks:

    A terrible moment, when it was necessary for everyone's sake to appear calm and cheerful. A pretense I would not have been able to sustain had I known this would be the last time I would see my father. He died during the Winter of the Hunger that was visited upon us after the failure of the Allies to liberate my unhappy country until the spring of 1945. It is as well that the future is ever an unread book , for had I known I would never see Papa again, I could not have left him. (7.64)

    In the moment, she's hopeful and praying something good will come of her running off with Dirk, Henk, and Jacob—but looking back, she knows some terrible things came out of that time too. So we get both perspectives together—the hopeful tone Geertrui possessed at the time, and the morbid one she brings to the moment in retrospect. The book is filled with moments when hope and death collide, and the tone follows along accordingly.

  • Genre

    Historical Fiction; Young Adult Literature; Coming-of-Age

    While there's plenty that's complex about this book—if nothing else, it asks some of the Big Questions in life—when it comes to genres, it falls into categories pretty nicely. It's historical fiction because a good chunk of it is set during World War II. This obviously isn't ancient history, but it's definitely long ago that it comes up in your history textbooks, so historical this book most certainly is. And since none of the characters are real, we're also hanging out in fiction land.

    Pop quiz: What's do you get when you combine history and fiction? Answer: Historical fiction. Boo ya.

    As for the young adult lit and coming-of-age genres, well, they go hand-in-hand. This book is centered on young people—even Geertrui is a teenager for a good portion of it—which is a tell-tale sign that you're on YA turf. Plus the language is pretty straightforward and the plot is pretty accessible—though there's plenty of history in this one, you definitely don't need a PhD (or a BA for that matter) to follow along.

    Since the young people this story centers on (we're including Geertrui) navigate some tough issues—sexuality, infidelity, and war definitely fit the bill—and all mostly on their own, you'd be hard-pressed not to see them come of age in the process. Though Jacob's vacation is pretty short, he definitely comes into his own, especially when it comes to kissing who he wants to kiss, and the same can be said of Geertrui as she argues for Jacob's safety, tends to his wounds, and explores s-e-x with him.

    The Big Questions in life are hard enough—luckily the genres are about as straightforward as they come in this book.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We see what Chambers did here. Jacob is a tourist in a far away place—Amsterdam—and what do you send when you're a tourist? Postcards. We're thinking the title is a play on the fact that Jacob is far from home throughout the book—both literally and metaphorically. So too, of course, is Geertrui in her own way.

    On a number of levels, both Jacob and Geertrui go places they've never been before—a foreign country, yes (for Jacob, anyway), but also in terms of sex, death, and other major life stuff—and in the process, learn a whole heckofa lot about themselves. So while Jacob literally goes to Amsterdam in this book, that's really just the beginning of the journeys we watch unfold.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    In the end, Jacob figures out who his grandfather really was, and is still undecided about whether he wants to let his grandma in on the big news. And then the book ends. We're not sure whether he ends up telling his grandma or not, but we know it doesn't matter to the book.

    How can we say that? Think about it. The novel isn't about his grandma at all—it's about Jacob and his journey. So in the end, it doesn't really matter if he tells her or not, because the whole novel was about him finding out more about his grandpa, his heritage, and himself. We think the author purposely left it up in the air so we have to decide what happens next. Besides, Shmoopsters, it's all about the journey in the end—and what a long, strange trip it's been.

  • Setting

    1990s Amsterdam and WWII Oosterbeek, Holland

    We get two settings for the price of one here, with Jacob's trip to Amsterdam in the 1990s taking over part of the novel, and Geertrui's time at her home in Oosterbeek during World War II as the other half. Crossing time might be more confusing if the entire book wasn't about the same event, namely World War II.

    You've heard of it, right? The novel follows what happens during one specific part of it, in the Battle of Arnhem. It goes a little something like this: Geertrui and Jacob live through the battle in 1944, and then modern-day Jacob comes to visit his grandpa's grave on the anniversary of it.

    The setting is super important to our understanding of what's happening in the story, because it's smack dab in the middle of the war zone geographically. Holland was hit pretty hard because it's close to Germany and is relatively small (in comparison)—plus it's right after the Allies assemble and liberate Paris. U.S. forces free Paris from Nazi control on August 25, 1944, and everyone's thinking Holland is next.

    When Geertrui starts her story, she tells us it's September 17, 1944, so it's really soon after this big Nazi defeat. Geertrui and Jacob are living through the time when the war is almost over, but not quite.

    It's easy for us to look back now and think they are less than a year from when the war ends in 1945, but there's still a lot of bloodshed all around them. Hundreds of people are still fighting for their lives, and they are right in the middle of it all. We think the fact that they are almost to the end of the war makes the story that much sadder. The end is in sight… but they don't get there.

    Want to know more about the what's happening in the war? Check out our timeline.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Once you get some historical background under your belt, it's not too hard to figure out this book. What we love about Postcards from No Man's Land is the way in which it uses two characters to tell the same story—both Jacob and Geertrui have a tale to tell, and combined they bring the whole story about love, family, and war into focus.

    While jumping back and forth between narrators and timeframes is a little complicated at first, as soon as you get your bearings, hopping in the time machine and shuttling back and forth between 1944 and the 1990s is a cake walk. Plus, as far as plots go, this one is pretty straightforward.

  • Writing Style

    Plain and Pragmatic

    Chambers's writing style—or should we say Geertrui's, at least half of the time—is plain and pragmatic, almost journalistic. When describing the events of WWII, or the present day, what happens to Jacob or Geertrui and how they feel about it is presented pretty directly.

    So even though we're not living in the 1940s, we still get what's happening between the young couple, in addition to what Geertrui thinks about it fifty years later. In fact, whether describing the past or present (or even future for Geertrui sometimes), Chambers is committed to involving readers in his text, almost like he's talking directly to us. For example, check out what Geertrui writes when considering death:

    It is when success seems to be almost in your grasp that you become aware of how fragile is human existence, and of the unending possibility, almost the inevitability, of failure. And this makes you hesitate. (2.42)

    Although Geertrui's supposedly addressing Jacob here, when she says "you," it's hard not to feel implicated. Geertrui's clear and realistic here, she explains exactly what it feels like to be in a war and be confronted with death. It could be really challenging for someone to share such deep, dark thoughts with us, but not for Geertrui—she calls it like she sees it.

    She also tells us why she's got time to do this writing and what the purpose is. After all, she wants Jacob to learn the full story, not the short version—she's on her deathbed, and she wants to be able to express herself in English properly to get the whole story out. This also tells us something about Geertrui's character: even in her last moments before death, when she'd be totally justified in getting a tan and drinking mai tais, she doesn't rest on her laurels—instead, she describes them.

  • It is Not Growing Like a Tree / Ben Jonson Poem

    When Jacob visits Geertrui in the nursing home, she asks him to read a poem to her by Ben Jonson. We're not sure why, but we know it's important to her. The poem goes like this:

    It is not growing like a tree

    In bulk doth make Man better be;

    Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,

    To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:

    A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
    Although it fall and die that night— 

    It was the plant and flower of light.
    In small proportions we just beauties see;

    And in short measures life may perfect be. 

    Symbolism alert: this poem is important to Geertrui because of all the memories it brings up for her. Check out the way she's described when her Dutch grandson reads the poem: "Geertrui's head turned and her eyes were on him again, intense, devouring. He had never seen the poem before" (12.59). In short, she eats it up.

    Geertrui and Jacob read poetry from Sam's book to each other all throughout the war, but for whatever reason, this poem becomes the symbol of their love and passion for one another. Did you notice how the poem talks about the perfect things in life not lasting? Or how it tells us that even though the flowers are beautiful and fair, they die in the evening? The poem is really telling us that everything in life that is worth looking at or experiencing is only short-lived—you know, like Geertrui and Jacob's relationship.

    Before Jacob's death, however, he and Geertrui are living through a war. People are dying all around them and life as they once knew it is actively being destroyed, so it's no wonder they want to cling to a poem about how great the beauty is in small and fleeting things.

    We can think of life as they've known it as a tree—society and such as been built up over long periods of time, and when it falls there is little beautiful about it (just like the "dry, bald" log in the poem). But the life Geertrui and Jacob's love infuses their experience of wartime with, we can see as the day lily—bursting forth, though it's death quickly approaches—as an insistence on beauty no matter what happens in the world around them. Looked at this way, there is almost something defiant, and certainly something brave, to Geertrui and Jacob's love.

    We later learn that Geertrui read this poem over Jacob's grave after he died. She tells us:

    […] at dusk I went out alone, and stood by Jacob's grave, and recited one of his favorite poems from Sam's book, an ode by Ben Jonson. He liked especially the last two lines, which he said summed up life better than any other words he knew. (17.66)

    After Jacob's death, the poem takes on double significance. It's no longer just about living life to the fullest, war or not—now the poem also comes to represent Jacob himself to Geertrui, since it was one of his favorites. It represents everything they had together that was taken away by the war—and the perfection of their love for each other anyway.

  • Love Token

    Jacob wanted to put a ring on it, but Geertrui said no—he was already married to Sarah after all. But the couple still wanted to exchange tokens of their love for each other, to make their love more official, so to speak, so the tokens operate almost like wedding rings. That they are not wedding rings, of course, reminds us that Jacob is already married to Sarah, who waits for him back home.

    We know that the geveltekens—or facade-signs—have "a broom to brush away thunder, a tree of life, a sun-wheel, and a chalice or cup" (19.44) on them. Doesn't that just scream romance? Okay, maybe not. But have no fear—Geertrui is more than happy to break down the significance of these images. She explains in her memoir that when they exchanged their tokens, Jacob told her that the signs are to:

    […] ward off the thunderous wrath to come for loving me, feed you from the glorious tree of life, ever cause the golden sun to shine upon you, and always fill you to the brim with pleasure in being my beloved Geertrui. (19.44)

    Pretty romantic after all, isn't it? The symbols represent different aspects of love—protection, happiness, pleasure, and the like—and that they consistently reference the future shows us that Geertrui and Jacob are not just some fling, but care a whole heckofa lot about each other.

    Geertrui tells Jacob that the symbol is more special to her than any words because it represents Jacob's love for her—it's not about the actual token, but more about the feeling of love and affection she gets when she looks at it. It's just theirs.

  • Mouse Mood Dream

    We couldn't resist talking about this dream over in Jacob's analysis in the "Characters" section, so hop on over there to unpack this symbol in all it's glory. It's a little dark, but then again, so is the coming-of-age process at times.

  • Anne Frank

    Remember when Jacob admits he doesn't just love Anne Frank—he's in love with her? It might seem strange at first—after all, it's not like he's ever met her (or ever going to, for that matter)—but if you scoot on over to Jacob's write-up in the "Characters" section, we think you'll see that actually his feelings for her make a whole lot of sense. Anne Frank is more than a writer and more than a love object in this book—she is a powerful symbol too.

  • Rembrandt Portrait

    Can you imagine if you saw a Rembrandt painting of yourself? If you ask us, it seems like it could be both intensely cool, and also pretty unsettling. This very thing happens to Jacob when he finds himself confronted with his own face—but in a super old portrait hanging in a museum. Understandably, he is overcome with emotion.

    Rembrandt is to Daan what Anne Frank is to Jacob. In other words, he feels a special, private connection to his work, and he loves to visit it in the museum. When he takes Jacob to see Rembrandt's painting, his cousin can see why. Check it out:

    No picture he had ever seen had so absorbed and fixated him. He did not want to say this but made himself say yes. (8.21)

    Jacob might love Anne Frank, but he's never felt this way about a painting before—so we see that it's not just literature or poetry that can move people then, but images as well. Plus, since Rembrandt's work means so much to Daan, sharing it with Jacob represents his opening up to him, which is pretty special in its own right.

    Daan explains to Jacob that the painting that looks so much like him is actually a portrait of Titus van Rijn. Wait, isn't that Daan's last name too? Why yes, Shmoopsters, yes it is. While no one's suggesting that Daan is Rembrandt's relation, this coincidence (if you can all anything in a book a coincidence) reinforces the strength of the connection Daan feels to Rembrandt's work—it is almost familial in its strength.

    And of course, since the painting looks like Jacob, we can go one step further with this symbol and argue that the connection he feels to Rembrandt's portrait of Titus represents the fact that this vacation Jacob is on is a sort of coming home for him. Not literally, of course—he's not about to move to Amsterdam any time soon—but metaphorically, since this trip reconnects him with his roots. That he has roots here in the first place is reinforced by the fact that there is a painting that looks just like him in the gallery.

    We think this painting works on one more symbolic level, although it's pretty subtle. It was made a long time ago, right? Longer ago than Anne Frank's diary. Like Anne Frank's diary, however, it remains relevant in the present—it provides not only a link to the past, but a way of feeling connected to something in the present. And since Geertrui's memoirs play such an important role in this story, the Rembrandt painting nudges us toward assuming the words she has written will have a sort of timeless value as well.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person and First Person

    In case you're thinking that we've totally lost our minds, don't worry—we'll explain how the book can be narrated in both the third and first person at the same time. Did you notice how we jump back and forth from 1944 to 1995 depending on who's talking? Well we're not just going through the time machine then—we're also switching it up when it comes to narration style.

    Whenever we're with Jacob, the novel is in third person. We observe him and his experiences as he wanders the streets of Amsterdam and learns the truth about his past. Check out the way he's described when we first meet him:

    Choosing to turn right across the bridge over the canal, he soon found himself in a bulge of open space, dominated by the bulky frontage of a theatre, into which many streets and tramways flowed. (1.4)

    See how he's talked about, instead of doing the talking? That's the mark of third person for you. We can see what he's doing and how he's doing it, but we don't experience it alongside him ourselves—instead we're watching him from a bit of a distance. When we're in Geertrui's chapters, on the other hand, we're right there with her, sitting inside her head.

    Everything from this gal is written in the first person, as though we're experiencing her life right along with her. An example? When she first sees the English soldiers entering Amsterdam, she says:

    I was on my way back when I heard the planes and saw the parachutes. "Oh look!" I called out, though there was nobody to hear me. "Look! How beautiful!" (2.7)

    We can almost see the parachutes with her, because we see the story from her perspective. Perhaps that's because she's writing it as a memoir for Jacob, wanting him to get what's happened to her—memoirs are usually written in the first person.

    Okay, so we switch perspectives in this book. But so what? Here's what it accomplishes, Shmoopsters: it keeps Geertrui in a position of authority—we're right there with her, so she's running the show in her chapters—and it keeps Jacob in a position of being along for the ride. Jacob never runs the show—we're never stuck in his head—which is fitting because, during this trip he's on, he's really not in charge. You know who is? Yup—Geertrui. And the narration style follows suit.

    • Plot Analysis


      When in Amsterdam…

      When Jacob arrives in Amsterdam, he's pickpocketed, confuses a guy for a girl, and hates seeing everyone flock to Anne Frank's house. In other words, dude's not having a good time of it. To make matters worse, the people he's staying with didn't even know he was arriving, and they don't really want him there. All in all, it's not the best vacation, and he's beginning to think he should just pack up and head home—but Daan tells him he'll definitely want to stay when he finds out why he's there.

      Wait, what? 

      Rising Action

      Family Portrait

      Daan takes Jacob to see Rembrandt's painting of his son, Titus, and Jacob is floored. It's him—no, really… it looks just like Jacob. He doesn't know what to feel, and then Daan tells him that Geertrui is scheduled for an assisted death in a week. Emotional and frustrated, Jacob's ready to go home, but Daan lets him in on a secret: Geertrui's got a big secret to tell him, and it involves him too.

      Meanwhile, back in the day, a young Geertrui gets to know the wounded soldier who arrived on her doorstep in World War II, and it's not long before she starts caring about him just like a member of her own family. We can tell that something big is about to happen between Geertrui and Jacob, we're just not sure what it is.


      Love Finds a Way

      Jacob starts exploring Amsterdam more, and gets to know Ton better; he's nervous around the guy, but he's not sure why. He learns about love in new ways—not just with women, but with men and a city to boot—and when he talks to Ton and Daan about love, he's surprised to learn their views aren't as narrow-minded as his. Jacob is scared to find out who he is, because he's afraid it won't line up with who he's supposed to be.

      Back in WWII, we learn that Jacob (a.k.a. the grandpa) and Geertrui fall in love. She's taken care of him for weeks, but when her brother runs off to help the Resistance, Geertrui leans on Jacob for support, which quickly turns into something more. The lovebirds admit their feelings for one another and soon spend every waking—and sleeping—moment together. Things don't look great for the lovebirds, who are hiding from Nazis to keep their love a secret, and Geertrui tells us it's only a matter a time before they're found out, or worse.

      Falling Action

      All is Fair in Love and War

      We knew going in that Jacob died during World War II, but even we weren't prepared for his sudden and emotional death one sunny day while dancing with Geertrui. Geertrui is distraught, but all the more so when she learns that she's pregnant with his child. Luckily Dirk returns and offers to marry her; they start a happier life together.

      We start to see how the pieces of the puzzle come together at this point. If Geertrui is pregnant, this means Tessel is actually Jacob's baby—so she's related to our modern-day Jacob too.

      Meanwhile, back in modern-day Amsterdam, Jacob visits his grandpa's grave and is hit with a wave of emotions. There he meets a girl named Hille and goes to get pancakes with her—he's starting to open himself up to people, and the city. He's also begun thinking he should be able to date whoever he wants.


      Dutch Grandma and Real Grandma

      Our two timelines (and characters) collide when Jacob learns the truth from Geertrui: it may have taken fifty years for her to admit it to people, but she and Jacob's grandfather had a baby named Tessel, a.k.a. Daan's mom. So, Geertrui is pretty much Jacob's Dutch grandma, Daan is his cousin, and Tessel is his aunt.

      It's hard for Jacob to take in at first, especially since he's not sure how his other grandma—Sarah—will take the news. Finding out her long lost hubby who died in the war wasn't perfect and had an affair will surely destroy her, and Jacob's not sure he wants to be the bearer of bad news. He can't decide whether he should tell her or not… and we're left guessing as to whether he does.

      We might not get a resolution to what Jacob does about the memoir, but we do know he's a changed guy because of it. He's willing to let himself like Ton and Hille now, and he's got a whole new outlook on where he's from.