Study Guide

Postcards from No Man's Land Themes

  • Identity

    Besides learning about his grandfather's secret love child and coming to grips with Geertrui's assisted death in Postcards from No Man's Land, Jacob's other journey is figuring out who he is. But identity isn't just about what's inside Jacob—it's also about his relationships with family and friends, and society in general.

    A big part of identity here is figuring out where you fit in, which is pretty hard for most young people, and Jacob's no exception. Instead of being comfortable in his own skin, he's confused by his emotions and ideas—so he's got to figure out how we wants to live and what he wants to do before he can really be cool with himself.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Do any other characters (besides Jacob) seem to have trouble with their identity? Does the younger Geertrui have any troubles with her identity? Why or why not?
    2. Could you rewrite this book with a younger or an older protagonist? Would this issue of identity be the same if Jacob were in elementary school or was middle-aged?
    3. How does Jacob ultimately decide who he is? What or who helps him decide?

    Chew on This

    Jacob creates his identity though those around him—his friends and family—which is why he takes the news about his grandpa so hard.

    Even though we learn a lot about Jacob's past, ultimately he gets to decide who he wants to be in his own life, regardless of his family history.

  • Love and Sex

    Everyone has a different definition of love, and Postcard's from No Man's Land offers a nice sampling of different perspectives. Love here is seen as a truly powerful, unstoppable force of nature for Geertrui and Jacob—it's the only constant in a tumultuous and confusing world, and it's a guiding star for all of us who are lost out there. But this view seems a little idealized to the younger Jacob and his dad, and then we've got the cynics like Daan and Ton who think love is here for a minute, and gone the next—so enjoy it while it lasts, because it won't last long.

    Questions About Love and Sex

    1. Whose definition of love do you agree with the most—Daan's, Ton's, Jacob's, or Geertrui's? Why?
    2. Does the book ever come down on one side with how love is supposed to be? Why do you think this is? Why is love so hard to define?
    3. Why does Jacob deny his sexual attraction to Ton? Given that he likes both Ton and Hille by the end of the book, does his definition of love change after spending time with Daan?
    4. Do you think it's okay for Jacob and Geertrui to be together when he's married to Sarah? Why or why not? Does the fact that a war is happening change anything?
    5. Postcards from No Man's Land asks us to think about how marriage is an outdated institution because love doesn't work like that anymore. How does Geertrui and Jacob's relationship relate to this idea? Do you think Daan is right that marriage is no longer needed?

    Chew on This

    Although Jacob is married, his love for Geertrui is an all-consuming force to be reckoned with that he cannot help but feel.

    Daan's view that marriage is outdated might be true for him, but that doesn't mean marriage itself is the problem.

  • Warfare

    You don't have to get beyond the cover to figure out Postcards from No Man's Land is about war. It's set during a battle in World War II, and then the anniversary of that battle, and follows the love story of a soldier and his makeshift nurse. But war is more than just the backdrop. The fact that lives are at stake ups the risk for the Geertrui and Jacob, and they are confronted with death all the time—so they've got to figure out how to survive with Nazis literally knocking down their doors. Asking someone to the prom doesn't seem so scary anymore, now that we think about it.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Would Geertrui and Jacob act differently without the war going on all around them? Do you think they still would have fallen in love?
    2. Alma tells Jacob that even though the war was horrible, it made people come together and bond more. Do you agree? Do we see that in Geertrui's memoir?
    3. How does the war (and the stories from it) affect the younger Jacob? Why is it so important for him to see his grandpa's grave in Holland?
    4. Why do you suppose Jacob ends up dying of a heart attack, and not a war-related injury? Is it more or less traumatic for Geertrui to experience his death this way?

    Chew on This

    Postcards from No Man's Land shows the morbid consequences of war, but it also demonstrates how war can unite people to work together and help each other out.

    Overall, Postcards from No Man's Land makes an anti-war statement.

  • Youth

    Are kids just the mini-me versions of the adults they will become, or is something substantial lost—or gained—in the transition to adulthood? And how does that process work, anyhow? Postcards from No Man's Land shows a young adult's perspective on the world then (thanks, Geertrui) and now (thanks, Jacob). But it also asks us to think about how youth might just be the hardest age of all.

    Sure, adults might think of it as a carefree time, but it's pretty lonely and confusing. Your body is changing; your emotions are haywire; and you're not sure who you want to be yet. Youth isn't all it's cracked up to be, and definitely not for Jacob.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Why is youth the loneliest age of all? Do you think Jacob—and Anne Frank—are right? How can they know when they haven't been old yet?
    2. According to the novel, what happens in the process of growing up? What factors determine what kind of adult a child becomes?
    3. Is identity fixed in childhood, or can it change over time? Has Geertrui changed from the time that her memoir describes? Has Jacob changed since he was younger?

    Chew on This

    Even though Jacob might think youth is lonelier than old age, he's only saying this because he's in that stage right now, so everything seems difficult to him. Once he gets to old age, he'll be singing a different tune.

    In Postcards from No Man's Land, Jacob thinks that youth is the loneliest age of all because everything is changing.

  • Art and Culture

    When Jacob wants to find himself, he jumps into The Diary of Anne Frank; when Daan needs a little TLC, he stares at Rembrandt; and when Geertrui and Jacob need a pick-me-up, they read poetry. Why? Art is super important to how people express and understand themselves in Postcards from No Man's Land. It brings comfort and challenges the characters to think, and it allows them to feel something other than the (often) crummy things happening around them.

    Art is life in this book, connectedness and vitality no matter what's going on around characters. Chambers is not just showing off his mad skills and knowledge of highbrow stuff—this novel takes a pretty self-conscious look at the art itself. It asks us to think about the value of art in our own lives, and how it can help us to think and create as well.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Does the novel represent different forms of art (like poetry, drawing, painting, writing) as equally valuable? What makes them so, or not so?
    2. Why does Jacob love Anne Frank specifically? Why does Daan love Rembrandt specifically? What is it about art that speaks to them?
    3. Have you ever felt comforted by poetry or literature, like Geertrui and Jacob? Why do you think poetry has a power to connect people?
    4. Does everyone in the novel appreciate art and literature? Who does? Who does not?

    Chew on This

    Art is a way for Jacob and Daan to understand themselves, even if they can't express themselves fully in their own lives.

    While Jacob and Daan both proclaim they love art and literature because it is honest, the reality is that they enjoy the escape of art more than the truth behind it.

  • Courage

    Nearly all the characters from Postcards from No Man's Land who are alive during World War II are brave. Geertrui is ready to die for Jacob and is always acting rashly to defend him; Jacob would rather stay behind than risk his comrades' lives; Geertrui's parents take English soldiers in even though they know what will happen if the Germans find out (it won't be good). And even the Wesselings hide the boys to keep them from the German camps. Not all of the good-guy characters are great fighters or strategists—heck, not all of them are even on the same side. But regardless of nationality—Dutch, English, American—all are capable of acts of great bravery, and each turns his or her strengths into courageous actions both on the battlefield and off.

    Questions About Courage

    1. How does this book define courage? What is the most courageous act of the book?
    2. Jacob thinks that he's not brave like his grandpa, but Alma and Geertrui thinks he's just never had reason to prove his courage. What do you think? Are people born brave, or does it only come out in certain situations, like war?
    3. How courageous do you think Geertrui and Jacob are? What do they do that makes them brave?
    4. Geertrui fights her dad to get the chance to help the soldiers. Is she courageous or naïve when she does that?

    Chew on This

    Jacob and Geertrui are courageous for fighting for their love in the midst of a war that is killing off their families and friends.

    While a lot of characters are brave during the war, the book leads us to believe anyone could act just as courageously, given the right circumstances.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Our mind is what keeps us aware (some of us more so after a cup of coffee in the morning)—it governs all of our choices and filters the massive amounts of information we encounter daily. And it never really stops; it keeps working even when we're not telling it to—daydreaming, telling our stomachs that we're hungry, putting one foot in front of the other. Our mind is the boss of all of that. But what happens when our body doesn't keep up with our minds? What then?

    Postcards from No Man's Land poses an age-old debate: is it okay to end your life if your body is already dying? For Geertrui, the answer is yes, but we're not so sure everyone else agrees with her. And while other characters might not be thinking about assisted death much at all, they still have to think about what life should be like all the time.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. What is the value of life in Postcards from No Man's Land? Does everyone agree it has the same value?
    2. Do you think Geertrui should be able to say when she gets to die? Should we all have death cards like Hille carries? Why or why not?
    3. How does Jacob understand his existence? In what ways does he turn to books and family to define it for him?
    4. Are we all given the same existence? Geertrui thinks biology governs how we act and think, but how do our experiences come into play?

    Chew on This

    Postcards from No Man's Land suggests that all men, women, and monsters are born essentially the same, and we're made different by our experiences—like war, family, and love.

    It's clear that our experiences are only part of our personalities; we're all born with essential parts of our consciousness formed, and who we are comes down to biology, just like Geertrui says.

  • Truth

    Truth can mean a lot of different things (at least that's what we told our mom when she asked where the plate of cookies went). There's "the truth," as in the opposite of a lie, and then there's "Truth" (yes, with a capital T), like the ultimate truth in the universe. In Postcards from No Man's Land, Jacob finds truth in art and literature, but then he can't handle it when he comes across it in real life. His final decision—whether to share Geertrui's memoir with his grandma Sarah—is a tough one for him, because he's not sure she can take it.

    In this book, the truth is something to be admired and sought after, but it's also a tough pill to swallow.

    Questions About Truth

    1. Geertrui claims it's always better to know the truth—even when it hurts. Do you agree? Should she have confessed her affair to Tessel, Daan, and Jacob?
    2. In what ways is the truth harmful? Do you think Sarah would want to know about Geertrui and her husband? Why or why not?
    3. Is it strange to find truth in fiction? Both Daan and Jacob love art because of its honesty, yet by definition, they are talking about pieces that were specifically created by someone for a purpose. Do you think that's honest, or something else?

    Chew on This

    In the end, Jacob learns that the truth might hurt, but it's worth knowing because it can help us understand who we are and where we came from, which will ultimately be helpful.

    Jacob might think he's after truth in The Diary of Anne Frank or Rembrandt, but he'd rather live in a world where things are exactly what they seem, not what they are.