Kees the Boy
A timeless, touching story about a boy, and an ode to fantasy
Kees the Boy is that rare early twentieth- century Dutch novel that never seems to go out of print. Every new generation finds something to identify with in this moving, funny book about what’s going on inside the head of an ordinary boy from Amsterdam at the turn of the century.
Thijssen did not originally intend *Kees the Boy, *published in serial form, to be a portrait of just one boy. He subtitled the first instalment “A youth-psychology case study”. His main object was to underscore the one trait that some of the rest of us may manage to hang on to all our lives, but which boys of twelve tend to possess in spades: the power of the imagination.
Every time his prospects seem far from rosy, Kees fantasizes about how things could *work out for him, if … If that rich tourist asked him for directions—and Kees answered him in his best French. Or if he managed to pull the daughter of his father’s wealthy client out of the way of an oncoming horse-drawn tram just in the nick of time. In that respect the book is reminiscent of James Thurber’s *The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
You can’t blame Kees for daydreaming, because real life (based in part on Thijssen’s own life) is grim. The story takes place around the year 1890. His father, a cobbler in Amsterdam’s working class Jordaan district, succumbs to tuberculosis and dies when Kees is just turning twelve.
The cobbler’s shop is shuttered, and his mother must make ends meet peddling coffee and tea.
Yet there is also positive growth: Kees’s increasing self-confidence, thanks to his daydreams at first, but later - when as the eldest son he has to take on new responsi- bilities - manifesting itself in real life as well. In the end his daydreams about his classmate Rosa Overbeek come true. For the duration of three kisses, anyway, since that’s when they must part; Kees has to leave school.
In his aversion to literary artifice, Thijssen resembles his Dutch contempo- raries Nescio and Willem Elsschot, known for their terse, forthright style. He avoids sentimentality by showing the family’s misfortunes through the eyes of Kees, who simply won’t believe things are as bad as they are. The adult reader knows better, however, which is where the book’s dramatic tension lies. Not many writers are as good at allowing the reader to slip from the real to the hero’s subjective (yet also universally recognizable) experience.