Study Guide

Postcards from No Man's Land Quotes

  • Identity

    He shifted in his seat and smiled secretly. The pleasure of self-discovery. (1.7)

    We're only seven paragraphs in, and already we're getting a hint that Jacob is about to discover himself, plus he's already musing on how to find himself. When he first sees Ton, Jacob gets one answer to the question of his identity, but it's not the only answer.

    Remembering home he suddenly became inward and didn't want to say any more about all that. He dabbed flakes of croissant on to a finger-end and licked them away. (4.41)

    It's as if Jacob doesn't want to come clean about who he is and why he's in Amsterdam—he doesn't want his grandpa's legacy to dictate who he is. And you know what? We get that. The only problem is that Jacob doesn't seem to be sure who he's gonna be without it.

    Never had I uttered such a speech before. Never had I thought myself capable of it. Never have I made such a speech again. Because, perhaps, never did such anger seize me as possessed me that day. Upstairs in the ruins of my home foreign soldiers were fighting for my country. Here in the cellar I was fighting for myself. (7.40)

    Geertrui stands up for Jacob to her family. We love a headstrong heroine in any book, but we can't help but notice that this speech is more about her finding herself and her real feelings for Jacob than it is about anything else. And we can get behind that too.

    The familiar hated affliction— feeling awkward, foolish, inept, embarrassed— surged through him, but for once he did not care and paid it no attention. The mouse dream flitted through his mind. Then he thought of Anne Frank and of his visit to her house— no, not her house, her museum— that morning. And now this and these tears. All somehow connected. (9.87)

    When Jacob finds out about Geertrui's scheduled death, he cries, but not because she's going—nope, he's more emotional about the fact that he's alive. It's telling since Jacob seems so detached and disconnected at the beginning of the book.

    How difficult it is sometimes to explain yourself to yourself. Sometimes there only is, and no knowing. (12.2)

    Jacob thinks this on the way to meet Geertrui in the nursing home. He seems to have a harder time than most connecting with himself. Do you think this changes by the end of the book?

    "Maybe we should always start everything from the inside and work to the outside, and not from the outside to the inside. Maybe life would be better that way. What d'you think?" (15.25)

    Hille says this to Jacob and we don't think she's talking literally—it's really more about looking inside someone and figuring out who they are than, say, exploring their organs. This is what she wants to do with Jacob, but he's still figuring it out for himself.

    All afternoon he had felt liberated, free to be himself in a new way. A self that had been suppressed, hidden, not allowed out, had been released. He liked this new self, and told himself that he was not going to let it be shut away again. (16.111)

    Check out that word liberated. After visiting his grandpa's grave and getting to know Hille, Jacob finally feels free—he gets to be himself for once, almost like someone being liberated in a war.

    And suddenly he thought for the first time, surprising himself: I don't want to go back. I want to stay here. There's more for me here than there. And I can be more me here than I can be there. (21.27)

    Finally Jacob seems content in Amsterdam. He thinks this after learning the truth about his grandpa, which makes us wonder whether that was his missing piece all along. If he hadn't have learned about Jacob's affair with Geertrui, would he still want to go back to Amsterdam? We'll let you answer that one.

    "Ton never sleeps with women. That's the way he is. Simone only sleeps with me. That's the way she is. I sleep with them both. That's the way I am. They both want to sleep with me. That's how we are. That's how we want it. If we didn't, or if any one of us didn't, then, okay, that's it. All the stuff about gender. Male, female, queer, bi, feminist, new man, whatever—it's meaningless. As out of date as marriage forever. I'm tired of hearing about it. We're beyond that now." (21.56)

    As part of Jacob's quest to find himself, he's also got to figure out his sexual identity. He's confused as to why he's in attracted to a guy, and why he tried to convince himself he was a she. Daan and Ton help Jacob figure out that he doesn't just have to be one thing.

    "After all, we're your Dutch family. You're one of us. You belong to us." (22.40)

    Tessel claims Jacob in the name of Holland. Okay, we're only half serious. She does think it's a good idea for Jacob to visit them again though, since they have a shared history and all—and we think Jacob agrees. He seems to feel a connection to Tessel, Daan, and Geertrui that he doesn't with others.

  • Love and Sex

    But it wasn't until he was in bed that he felt—really felt—just how embarrassed he was. And, for heaven's sake, how could he not have realized that Ton was a boy? Thinking about it now, he knew he'd known all the time. Had sensed it. But he'd wanted Ton to be a girl, had wanted it very much, and wouldn't let himself see that he wasn't. The truth was he'd deceived himself. (3.4)

    Hmm… it sounds to us like Jacob is just trying to convince himself he's something he's not. Why does he freak out about being attracted to Ton? The same reason he doesn't really know how to live: he's still figuring out who he is.

    "Some people say falling in love is a kind of madness whenever it happens. If that's so, all I can say is I would rather be mad than sane." (4.113)

    Alma comforts Jacob when she tells him this, because he's worried he sounds like a circus freak for loving a character. The novel shows us that there are all different kinds of loves—with a person, a city, a character, a memory—and all are important to different people, and at different times.

    "I asked Geertrui the other day what she thought love is—real love, true love. She said that for her real love is observing another person and being observed by another person with complete attention. If she's right, you only have to look at the pictures Rembrandt painted of Titus, and there are quite a lot, to see that they loved each other. Because that is what you're seeing. Complete attention, one of the other." (8.61)

    Leave it to Geertrui to come up with a beautiful definition of l-o-v-e. If we stop and think about it, there are many characters who love one another by this measure. And it's not limited to just people either—Jacob's love for Anne Frank and Daan's for Rembrandt would easily fall under this category as well.

    We all knew of Dirk's feelings for me, he had made them plain enough to his parents as well as myself weeks before. His mind was set on marrying me. In this I had given him no encouragement. Not because I did not like him. No no. He was a handsome young man and one of the kindest, most considerate of people I have known. But I did not love him in the way, I thought then, you ought to love someone if you married him. (10.20)

    Poor Dirk—he hearts Geertrui, but she doesn't heart him back. Before you go feeling sorry for Dirk, we should point out that he gets the girl in the end. For Geertrui, sometimes it's not just about love when it comes to marriage.

    Never before had anyone held me like this, never before had I felt the intimate shape of a man's body against my own. This itself would have been enough to startle me. Not that I disliked it, not at all. Indeed, while before my heart was beating with dreadful fear, now it beat with excitement. But then something else occurred, something even more startling. I felt Jacob's sex swelling between my thighs. As if it were being inflated by a bicycle pump. (13.26)

    Hiding from the German officer, Geertrui tries to relax, but she's taken by surprise when she remembers she's lying on top of Jacob. At this point, she's naïve and innocent, but it's not long before she too can acknowledge her passionate feelings for the English patient.

    I propose no explanation, make no excuse. Nor do I offer the slightest regret. Quite the opposite. I cling to this moment, this decision. And endure its consequences. Of nothing in my life am I as certain as I am of my love for Jacob. (15.11)

    Oh no she didn't… We tried to imagine what Jacob's wife, Sarah would say if she read this, but really, the book asks us to think about the love that Geertrui and Jacob share. They don't try to make excuses or justify their love for one another, which makes it seem as though it's such a strong force, they can't deny it.

    Long enough for me to decide in calmness of mind that love cannot be love without risk. It seemed obvious to me, though I do not know how or when I had learned it, that love that is real is always dangerous. And more dangerous to the one who gives it than to the one who receives it. (15.34)

    They say all is fair in love and war, but we're not so sure—for a while it seems like everything is perfect between these lovebirds, but war gets in the way. This leads us to think about whether you can ever really have love without risk. It certainly doesn't seem possible in wartime.

    New love is like a star, it radiates energy. Young love shared is a firmament. Doubt is not available. And shut away on the farm we were living in a kind of cocoon, isolated from other people. In ordinary times we would have mixed with friends and family, telling our closest confidants of our love, of our hopes and plans, and they would have encouraged or dissuaded us, reminding us of everyday realities and helping keep our feet on the ground. (17.17)

    This is such a pretty idea of love, giving off light and energy wherever it goes. And to think this is the description Geertrui gives her love fifty some years after it took place.

    "Right. Yes. Love is not finite. It is not that we each have a limited supply of it that we can only give to one person at a time. Or that we have one kind of love that can only be given to one person in the whole of our lives. It's a ridiculous thing to think so." (21.58)

    Daan's idea of love is different from his mom's and his grandma's. Here he explains what he thinks about love being something that is infinite, that comes and goes and ebbs and flows. Jacob isn't so sure he buys this definition of love though, and wants to create his own idea of it.

    "One of the reasons I love Daan so much is that we think things together we never would have thought by ourselves. Or with anyone else. And for us, the sex is part of how it happens." (21.107)

    What matters most to Ton about his relationship with Daan is that it brings out the best in each of them. So who cares whether society approves? They're happy and help each other be the best they can be.

  • Warfare

    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!" And then I raced for home, saying to myself over and over again, "The Tommies have come! The Tommies have come! Liberation! Liberation!" (2.7)

    Our first description of war is actually of it being over—or, what Geertrui thinks will be the end of the war anyway. Too bad for her, things are just heating up where she lives. The novel constantly hints at the end of the war, making the death that war brings that much more heartbreaking when we experience it.

    Somehow, I suppose, till that moment, the war, the fighting, had been outside, separate from us. Now suddenly it was happening right inside our home. (2.28)

    This is a huge moment for Geertrui, because it's arguably when she grows up. She's no longer an innocent kid, ignorant of the war going on around her—now she's seeing bloody soldiers and death right in her own living room, and growing up as a result.

    "Now we know what war means," said Mother. (2.60)

    For Geertrui's family, the war really hits home when, well, it hits home. When their home is destroyed, they don't know how to move past the war, because it's all around them, killing people and things they've cared about their whole lives.

    "But what I wanted to tell you is that though it was awful at the end, we were all in it together. Now it isn't like that. Most of us in your country and mine are well off and comfortable compared with those days, yet we allow it to happen that great numbers of our young people are homeless." (4.75)

    Alma's memory of the war is hauntingly beautiful—it was dark and full of death, but it also forced people to unite and help one another. The question is: which is better—a selfish, peaceful society, like the modern one, or a united, war-torn world like back in the day?

    I think this was the moment when I knew for sure that, after all, we had not been liberated but would soon once more be in the hands of the German invaders. And for the first time that week I was truly afraid. So afraid that my legs felt too weak to carry me and my hands trembled uncontrollably. I wanted to scream but could not utter a sound. My stomach tightened in a knot, yet I wanted to rush to the lavatory. (5.57)

    The novel doesn't just tell us the consequences of war for the entire community—it makes it personal. Very personal. Geertrui feels sick over what's happening, but she's got no choice but to deal with it.

    "Rotten luck!" I shouted. "How can you say that? This is not rotten luck! This is because of fighting. Because of war. Rotten war! I hate it! I hate all of it! I hate those who have done this! How dare they! How dare they!" (5.70)

    When Jacob must stay behind from the men, he thinks it's just bad luck, but Geertrui knows better. Here's the thing, though: later on, she changes her tune. She tells us she thinks a lot of her survival was just down to luck, not anything else. War changes her whether she likes it or not.

    Whatever happened now, at least I was making an effort to take charge of my own life and not giving myself in to the hands of our enemy. I have never been as religious as my parents, but such times bring back the old words. (7.59)

    It's not uncommon for people to get religious when they confront death or war, but Geertrui thinks about this in a unique way. She finds comfort in the practice of reciting religious words, whether she believes them or not—for her, it's more about taking charge for herself than letting her parents decide everything for her.

    "And besides, Dad has never been happy about the way Sarah idolizes Jacob—that's what he calls it—and romanticizes—his word again—their three years of marriage. He says it's unhealthy. No relationship, he says, is ever as perfect as Sarah makes out hers was with Grandfather, no matter how much the two people are in love. I wouldn't know." (12.37)

    We get why Sarah only praises Jacob—he's a war hero and it's easy to remember things more perfect than they actually were. Yet the book doesn't let us get away with thinking the same thing—Jacob's dad and Geertrui's memoir make sure of it.

    Young Geordie and myself were warned to get ready. As we had not been in the battalion long, we were designated as bomb carriers and were given the harness with six ten-pound [4.5 kgs] mortar bombs to cart into action. We were issued with Dutch occupation money, maps, escape saws, forty rounds of .303 rifle ammo, two .36 grenades, an anti-tank grenade, a phosphorus bomb, and a pick and shovel, as well as the rifles we already had. (14.11)

    Private Sims's account of war is a real-life memoir from what happened during the battle of Arnhem. It gives the book a sense of realism, like we're really witnessing the war in front of us, as it happens—it makes us think about what it was like for the soldiers who fought when they were fighting, not afterwards.

    "Besides, all war is horrible, dreadful, I don't like to hear about it. And that war, Hitler's war, is still so much talked about here in the Netherlands, on and on, almost as if it only ended yesterday. I wish people would stop. So much pain, why do we go on remembering it so much? It would be better if we forgot. But people say, no, we must always remember so that nothing like it ever happens again. To which I ask, when has the human race ever forgotten about their wars, and how much has that prevented another being fought?" (14.56)

    Tessel might ask Jacob this, but we (the audience) are being asked to think about it too. Is it important to remember war? Does doing so keep us from fighting again? We'd like to think it does, but look around the world—there has been plenty of war since WWII ended. Does that mean Tessel is right?

  • Youth

    So at home I stayed with only Sooji, my childhood teddy bear, to nurse while I watched the soldiers from my bedroom window. Every time one of their guns went off, the blast shook our house, rattling the windows and making the dust fly. (2.23)

    We all had a teddy or a favorite toy when we were young. Geertrui's stands out in her life now though, since her life is no longer full of the thoughts and dreams of little kids. It's contrasted with this idea of the death going on around her—youth has no place in war, so she grows up.

    "How would I know? Haven't been old yet."

    "Nor had Anne, so how could she know?" (4.74-75)

    When Jacob and Alma talk about youth and old age, we can't help but wonder the same thing as Alma: how does Anne Frank know about old age when she's just a kid? Jacob doesn't have a good answer, but we think it has something to do with the fact that she imagines what old age must be like, and thinks youth must be harder.

    Jacob paused a moment to check his memory before saying, "Okay. It goes: 'For in its innermost depths youth is lonelier than old age.' I read this saying in some book and I've always remembered it, and found it to be true. Is it true then that grown-ups have a more difficult time here than we do? No. I know it isn't. Older people have formed their opinions about everything, and don't waver before they act. It's twice as hard for us young ones to hold our ground, and maintain our opinions, in a time when all ideals are being shattered and destroyed, when people are showing their worst side, and do not know whether to believe in truth and right and God." (4.85)

    This quote from Anne preoccupies Jacob, so it's worth us looking at closely. As he works through it, he decides kids do have it harder than adults. Hmm… is that because they have to listen to what adults say? Do you think kids are lonelier than old folks? Why?

    Mother touched my arm and said with a sad smile, "This week, I think you finally leave your childhood behind." And with that she got on with the job, and I too. (5.11)

    Childhood complete, Geertrui's adulthood begins. Geertrui's mom tells her she's an adult when she has to help clean parts of Jacob's body she's never seen before. This makes us think that being an adult is really just a mentality—if someone can proclaim you an adult, and that's all it takes, then it must just be in our minds.

    The old often say they remember their youth more clearly than the day before yesterday. But this is not it. I know these things because those few days and the few weeks that followed them were such an intensity of living, so much more than any other time of my life, that they are unforgettable. (5.28)

    Geertrui tells us that she had such a passionate time in her youth that she remembers it so clearly. It seems like she remembers it more because it deals with the love of her life (Jacob) than because she was young and free.

    Indeed, he was secretly pleased. He had grown up there, it belonged to his childhood. He regarded leaving it as the end of his childhood. By giving it up he had taken the next step towards becoming adult, a person in charge of himself. And achieving that state was something he had always wanted for as long as he could remember. (11.58)

    Jacob wants to grow up and be in charge of his own life, but we can't help but wonder if he really knows what this means. Sure, moving in with grandma is a big step, but when Jacob shows up in Amsterdam, he's clueless and naïve—just like a kid.

    Was I prepared to accept the consequences, I asked myself as I examined my body in the mirror in the candle-lit coldness of the night. And replied to myself aloud, with the brave arrogance of untried youth, "Yes. Yes, I am." (15.34)

    When deciding to go to Jacob, Geertrui asks herself these questions, and decides to go hook up with him. We see that she's an adult not because of what she does with Jacob, but because she's willing to live with the consequences of whatever happens—and has the foresight to think of the consequences before she acts.

    In the few weeks since we had last seen each other Dirk and I had lived through experiences that changed us. Neither was a youth any longer. We had entered into a new, adult phase. We both recognised this as soon as we looked in to the other's eyes before a word was said. And so our greeting was quieter than it would have been before, a little wary, but more tender too. (19.12)

    We'd like to think not much can change in a few weeks, but by the time Dirk comes back from the Resistance, he's a different person, and so is Geertrui. They've experienced death and loss in ways that most young adults haven't, and this makes them bond together.

    "Perhaps you lost some of your childhood innocence. Every time we learn an important lesson about life we suffer a sense of loss. That's my experience. We gain. But there's a cost." (22.66)

    Alma says this about Jacob's sad experience at Anne Frank's house, and we think she's right. He wants to imagine that Anne is his own personal friend, but in reality, her book is one of the most widely read across the world. It's hard to change your idea about something without feeling a bit sad or emotional, just like Jacob does when he visits her house.

    After the funeral my body will be cremated. Tessel and Daan spread my ashes in the Hartenstein Park at Oosterbeek. Dirk's ashes are there. Where we grew up and spent the days of our childhood with Henk. (22.83)

    Geertrui tells Jacob this in her letter about where her body will be after she dies. Check out what she says about her final resting place: it's where they spent their childhood, back when they were innocent and free. She's come full circle.

  • Art and Culture

    "To tell the truth, I think I'm in love with Anne herself." Surprised by his unintended confession, he sat back, drained his coffee, rubbed his thighs, was aware of his toes tapping a rapid tattoo on the floor and his face blushing. Laughing to cover his confusion he said, "I do feel as if I know her better than anyone else. I mean, better than any of my family or friends." (4.108)

    It's clear Jacob's got a special place in his heart for Anne Frank, and in case we didn't catch it before, he spells it out for us here. He feels such a deep connection with her, despite the fact that she's just available in a book.

    And then Sam spoke for the first time since he was brought to us, saying in a clear high sing-song voice, "I have desired to go where springs not fail, to fields where flies no sharp and sided hail and a few lilies blow. And I have asked to be where no storms come, where the green swell is in the havens dumb, and out of the swing of the sea." (5.27)

    Sam quotes from poetry to bring the others comfort and joy, but he also cries. So poignant, Shmoopsters.

    When I heard them, I thought poor tortured Sam was uttering beautiful strange shell-shocked words. But Jacob knew they were a poem, which later he taught to me. As also one other, of which I shall tell you soon, that I have treasured throughout my life. (5.30)

    This book of poetry becomes so important to Geertrui and Jacob when they are in the hiding place together, so we know the first time we see it is significant too. Her reaction to the poem Sam quotes is almost as touching as the poem itself.

    On the wall in front of him Jacob saw a portrait of himself. In ancient oils. Head to waist. Angled towards his left. In rich and rusty browns. Except for the pale triangular familiar face. Life size. Which shone as if bathed in sunlight, framed within the shadowed enclosure of a monk's hood raised over the head. Eyes lowered and heavy-lidded. Wide mouth with fleshy bee-stung lower lip caught by the painter in a shy demure pleased-with-himself smile. And the feature which took most of Jacob's attention because he hated it so much, the long thick nose with its blunt and bulbous end. His father's nose. His grandfather's nose. The Todd nose. His sister Poppy and his brother Harry didn't have it. They had his mother's pretty, slim-line version. (8.3)

    Can you imagine if you saw a Rembrandt painting of yourself? We have to admit: we're a little jealous. It seems like it would so cool, if also a little unnerving. Here we see Jacob moved by this near-mirror image of himself.

    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. Plus, Daan takes him to see Rembrandt's work as a way of sharing something deeply meaningful to himself with Jacob, which is pretty sweet in its own right—this is Daan opening up to Jacob.

    "That's one reason why I love Rembrandt. His truthfulness. Always honest. Loves people and loves them just as they are. Never afraid of life as it is." (8.46)

    Okay. Daan has just admitted that Rembrandt loved painting his son as something else—a monk or Paul the apostle—but that he loves how truth can still come out of the painting, even when someone is disguised as someone else. If that's not a cool trick, then we don't know what is.

    "But in that case," he said, speaking the words as the thought came to him, "all art is love, because all art is about looking closely, isn't it. Looking closely at what's being painted.' 'The artist looking closely while he paints, the viewer looking closely at what has been painted. I agree. All true art, yes. Painting. Writing—literature—also. I think it is. And bad art is a failure to observe with complete attention. So, you see why I like the history of art. It's the study of how to observe life with complete attention. It's the history of love." (8.62)

    In the gallery, Daan and Jacob decide that art is just like love, because the artist has to connect with the person s/he's creating. This is just about the most concise description we get of why art is so important to these guys: it's an expression of love.

    "And you know how she wanted to be a famous writer? Well, she started rewriting her diary not long before she was captured because she heard a broadcast by one of the Dutch ministers. He said he wanted everyone to save letters and diaries and things like that, things they had written during the occupation, and after the war they would collect these together and put them into a national library so that in future people would be able to read what it was actually like for ordinary people during the war, and not just have to rely on books by professional historians." (14.57)

    Jacob tells Tessel that he loves Anne Frank because she's just a regular old gal, just like us. It's not that he loves a story about the war or the history of it; he's invested in the personal experience of it all, from the perspective of a kid.

    When he was not reading to me, we talked of books we loved. Jacob told me of English writers and books I had never heard of but which, after the war, I found and read for myself. And I told him of our Dutch writers I admired most. We sang to each other the popular songs we knew. (17.15)

    Even with war raging outside their door, Geertrui and Jacob talk about literature. For them, it's a form of escape from their current world because it offers something more—something they can't find hiding the German-occupied Holland.

    In the evening and at night in the hiding place with Jacob, the passion and tenderness of our love-making, the fun of our private talk and jokes, the consolation, the fantasy of our future together, the refreshment of the things we read and recited to each other from Sam's book (the only one we had in English). (17.24)

    One book of poetry becomes a prized possession for the lovebirds, perhaps because they have nothing else. It's their escape, their emotions, and their passions for one another, all rolled into one. Plus it's a link to the outside world and the shared human experience.

  • Courage

    "Think, my dear. We owe it to these people. They've come to help us. We must do what we can to help them. And think of our daughter. Isn't it natural she wants to play her part? When this horror is over, what would you have her say, that she had to stand by and watch while others took all the risks?" (2.44)

    Just when we are expecting Geertrui's mom to shut her down, she goes to bat for her with Geertrui's dad. Courage is something that Geertrui's family gets—even when it's hard. She might be nineteen, but she's allowed to help out, just like her parents and brother.

    At first I was squeamish, but I discovered then how quickly you learn to cope with terrible things if you have no choice. And luckily I inherit from my mother a practical view of life. While we worked, the soldiers told us about their homes and families, their friends and girlfriends, and showed us photos. Mostly they were very young, nineteen and twenty, and I think wanted more than anything to be mothered. (2.57)

    Sure the soldiers were brave and acting heroically, but Geertrui shows a different side of them too—they also were so young and just want some love from a mom. Our hearts go out to these poor guys who are fighting in a far away land for people they've never met.

    I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. (3.1)

    This quote from Anne Frank starts off Chapter 3 with a bang, mainly because we're asked to make a comparison between Anne and Jacob. She too finds solitude and comfort in writing and reading, even when it's scary for her.

    She had such courage. And she really knew what she wanted out of life. I wish I had her courage. And I wish I knew myself that well. (4.108)

    Jacob thinks this about Anne Frank, yet we've just had a quote from her telling us that sometimes she was scared or sad too. Jacob might idolize Anne, but we can see that she had her off-days too.

    It struck me even then that his bravery in the face of his suffering was quite as great as the bravery of the men who went on battling to save us. (5.62)

    When Jacob is recovering from his injuries, he doesn't complain or act like a victim—so in a way, he's just as courageous inside as he was outside when he was fighting. Courage isn't about yielding a weapon and running into battle; it's about being brave in a situation that's scary.

    We were lucky that the German had not spotted us before he stood up, we were lucky that he hesitated, we were lucky that Dirk moved so quickly , we were lucky that Jacob's gun was ready to fire, and we were lucky that the gun's mechanism worked properly despite the conditions. As so often at such times, especially in war, the outcome depended on luck. Not on heroism, if heroism depends on rational thought, for there was no time for thought. Only on the irrational, arbitrary, unjust nature of luck. (10.3)

    Geertrui initially thinks Jacob is ridiculous for blaming bad luck for the fact that he was hurt, but as she lives through the war, she changes her tune. Luck is a major player.

    "Have you had cause?"

    "To be brave? Does bravery need a cause?"

    "There can be none without." (12.40)

    Now that's the question. Geertrui asks Jacob if he's ever even had reason to be brave, and it turns out he hasn't. She thinks that bravery comes out of a situation, not just a person.

    "It's not that I don't believe in bravery or courage or those things. Just, I think most people are brave and courageous but in different ways and different—how do you say? gelegenheden—occasions." (14.143)

    Hmm… now where have we heard this before? Hille echoes what Geertrui says about courage—she too thinks that anyone can be brave in the right circumstances. Do you agree? Or are some people just braver than others?

    "Yes. Ordinary people's bravery. To me that's real bravery. But you don't get medals for it or monuments put up for it." (15.66)

    Hille's already decided what she wants to happen to her if she gets in an accident or is on her deathbed. For such a youngster, she's got it all figured out—and too her, that's an act of courage. She thinks it's more about everyday life than huge moments of bravery in war and stuff.

    Ton gave a little huffing laugh. "Bravery, it isn't! It's just how we believe life should be. Not for everyone. But for us. And people who think like us. We're learning how to live it while we live it. What else is worth doing?" (21.106)

    For Jacob, Ton being openly gay is brave, but for Ton, it isn't. Their conversation makes us consider the idea that what might be hard for some people might not take as much courage in others.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    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)

    Right from the start, we know the book is going to ask us to think about some deep stuff concerning life, and boy, does it not disappoint. Geertrui explains how it feels to live through war, not by focusing on death, but through her life experiences.

    Sometimes you live more life in an hour than in most weeks, and sometimes it is possible to live more in a few weeks than in all the rest of your life. This is how those days in 1944 are to me. And also I know what was said in that other language I already loved because, as I shall explain you, these events during the battle were later talked over with Jacob again and again. (5.28)

    Life isn't a game. Geertrui thinks about how life never goes at the same pace—sometimes it speeds up, and other times it slows down. Sadly, you don't get to control the pace.

    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. Such accidents of fate suffered in one's youth return to haunt one with irrational guilt in old age. If only I had been there, I might have helped him survive. If only. By the time one is old, one is rich in this currency. (7.64)

    Geertrui's memoir weaves the past, present, and future together, and here is no different. She admits that when saying goodbye to her dad, it was difficult, but it would have been ten times harder had she known it would be the last time she ever saw him. While she's got the benefit of looking back on her life, the Geertrui in the moment doesn't—and neither do we.

    "Some people argued that everybody should have the right to die decently. To make decisions about their own death. We didn't ask to be born, they said, but at least we should have some say in our own death. Especially when we can't, you know—function properly any more … It's a question of personal freedom." (9.80)

    We're asked to think about some pretty dark topics, like euthanasia. For Geertrui, it's better to die than live with such pain, but not everyone agrees with her. (We're lookin' at you, Tessel.) Ultimately, we're asked to decide what we think about assisted death. Over to you, Shmoopsters.

    He had never really liked being a child, had always wanted to be grown up, independent, responsible for himself. Had always wanted to be as free as he could be to live life as he wanted to live it. Even though, he had to admit, he did not yet know exactly how he wanted to live. (11.58)

    Well isn't that just perfect—Jacob wants to live, but he's not sure how. He wants to be an adult, but he doesn't think he is yet. Part of Jacob's journey is sorting these big, million-dollar questions out for himself. The answers he comes up with might not be the same for you, but hey, we've all got to figure them out for ourselves.

    "Yes, even in your mouse moods you only play with the idea of not being." She cleared her throat again. "Biology, you see. It's because of biology that we want to live and not to die. And it is because of biology that we come to a time when we want to die and not to live." (12.55)

    Geertrui thinks it's all just a matter of biology at the end of the day. We all want to keep on living, because that's what our bodies do, and that's how we're made. We wonder if there's more to it than that for Jacob though. He wants to keep on living to experience Anne Frank's diary and this new city full of canals.

    They were waiting, and yet they were not waiting. Rather as if what they were waiting for was already with them. There and not there, he thought. Being and not being. Absent presence. (14.80)

    At the cemetery, Jacob is both there with Tessel, and not there at the same time, just like how his grandpa is there (literally, in the ground), but he's not because he's already dead. It makes Jacob think about life and how to live, not just exist.

    Another lesson, one of the most affecting of my life, in how fragile is human nature. In the moment it took to read her son's letter this mature, experienced, dominant woman disintegrated as if the yarn that held the garment of her self together had been pulled out and she had unravelled into a tangle of twisted thread. (15.2)

    We feel for Mrs. Wesseling when her son runs off to war without so much as a goodbye—it changes her into someone more delicate and makes us think that life is the same way. You've probably heard the old saying "life is fragile, handle with care." That definitely rings true here.

    "Dead. Life would be dead. If there weren't any ifs we wouldn't be here. Nobody would be. We would not be. So we'd be the same as dead."

    "You mean, all life is just one big if?"

    "Isn't that obvious?" (15.36)

    In his discussion with Hille, Jacob thinks over the idea that all of life is one big question mark. The book certainly makes us think about what the meaning of life is, and if the answer is… that it's an ongoing question. Life really makes us scratch our heads.

    There was something more we should do, something we should say. How could this bleak moment be the end? After surviving the battle and his wounds and the journey to the farm and the raids by the Germans, after working so hard to get him well again, after our loving time together, how could it end as it did? How could life be so unfair? (17.58)

    When Jacob dies—suddenly—Geertrui is heartbroken. Wouldn't you be if the love of your life dropped dead while dancing with you? She questions life itself because it does seem unfair to her that she should keep on living while her love is dead.

  • Truth

    Only then did he also take in what Ton had scrawled in a spidery hand on the inside flap: a row of telephone figures under which were the words: BE READY NIETS IN AMSTERDAM IS WAT HET LIJKT. (1.50)

    Nothing is what is appears to be—Jacob reads this on the matchbox, and he discovers it over and over again in Amsterdam, first with Ton really being a boy, then with Daan being his cousin and his grandpa being someone different than he learned his whole life. In a way, the whole book is about Jacob figuring out the difference between truth and fiction.

    But it wasn't until he was in bed that he felt—really felt—just how embarrassed he was. And, for heaven's sake, how could he not have realized that Ton was a boy? Thinking about it now, he knew he'd known all the time. Had sensed it. But he'd wanted Ton to be a girl, had wanted it very much, and wouldn't let himself see that he wasn't. The truth was he'd deceived himself. (3.4)

    We know Jacob lying to himself has more to do with his own sexual identity and coming to terms with who he is attracted to than anything else, but still—we can't help but point out that this is a big moment for Jacob in a new city with new people. He's starting to question what is true and what's fake.

    Alma glanced up, assessing him, before saying with a bleak firmness, "You have to know your own truth and stick to it. And never despair. Never give up. There's always hope." Then, as if aware of how stern she must sound, she smiled and shrugged and added, "This I learned during the war." (4.92)

    The word is out: this is the secret to getting old. For Alma, it centers on truth that you get when you're old but don't know when you're young. Even so, did you notice how she says that truth is something that you have for yourself? This means there's more than one version of the truth out there.

    "Her honesty. About herself. About everybody. She wants to know about everything. And she sees through everything. She's a thinker. She was fifteen when … they took her." (4.108)

    Perhaps that's because Anne's writing in a diary, Jacob—so of course her ideas are hers alone, since they weren't (originally) intended for a larger audience. It's intriguing to think about Anne Frank's thoughts as being honest for her in her time, but somehow for Jacob as well, fifty years later. Truth has no time period or place, it seems.

    "That's one reason why I love Rembrandt. His truthfulness. Always honest. Loves people and loves them just as they are. Never afraid of life as it is." (8.46)

    Daan loves that Rembrandt is truthful, even though it's art. We think it's more fascinating to think that both Daan and Jacob specifically love art because of is honesty, as though it can't be found in the real world except through art.

    "Here is memory. For me now there is only memory. Memory and pain. All life is memory. Pain is of now, forgotten as soon as gone. But memory lives. And grows. And changes too. Like the clouds I can see through my window. Bright and billowy sometimes. Blanketing the sky sometimes. Storm-tossed sometimes. Thin and long and high sometimes. Low and grey and brooding sometimes. And sometimes not there at all, only the cloudless blue, so peaceful, so endless. So longed for. But let us not talk of death. Only of clouds. Always the same and yet never the same. Uncertain. Unreliable, therefore. Unpredictable." (10.24)

    Remember when you were a kid? Chances are that you remember some things differently than your mom, even though you lived through the same experience. Memory isn't truthful sometimes, because we can change it over time. So how do we know what really happened in the past without memory?

    "I shouldn't have mentioned it again. I only meant to say that Mother has always been a little full of secrets. And determined… stubborn, I should say, in her personality. Now it's even worse because the drugs they give to help her endure pain make her confused." (14.41)

    Is this true? (See what we did there?) Tessel tells Jacob that Geertrui is losing her mind, but she's lucid enough to write a memoir and meet him in the nursing home without any mix-ups. Maybe this is just Tessel's way of dealing with her mom's illness.

    Keeping a grip on himself, he decided that whatever he said, he wanted it to be true. Or at least, as true as words could be for an experience he hardly understood. (16.38)

    We get the feeling that truth is subjective. Why else would he think he should tell Hille something "as true as words could be"? It's clear that sometimes words just can't live up to what's happening—it's as though they aren't truthful enough.

    This was not an easy thing for her. But I have always believed it is best to know the truth, though it may be hard and hurts. I wanted my daughter to know the truth of her history. (19.33)

    You can't handle her truth… or, Tessel can't anyway. Geertrui still thinks it's a good idea to tell her daughter where she really comes from and have it be difficult, than let her go on believing in an easy lie.

    "Maybe she sees him through rosy spectacles now, after all these years. Sarah too. But something big happened between them then. Something true. Something existed which wasn't a fantasy. They haven't made it up. You can't deny that." (21.47)

    Jacob says this to Daan about Geertrui's relationship with Jacob, but we're not sure Daan is convinced. The truth is a funny thing, and it's often different things to different people. For Sarah and Geertrui, the truth is that Jacob was an amazing guy, but Daan isn't convinced.