A lucid historical picture of coalminers in the 19th century
The mid-nineteenth century was peak time for the coal mines of Limburg in the southern Netherlands. Child labour was normal, compulsory education non-existent and the population was under the thumb of the Roman Catholic church, the large landowners, and industrial bosses. Against this bleak background Van der Vlugt describes the hopeless existence of a mining family. The reader sees all this through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Emma: hunger, cold, inadequate housing, parents worn-out by adversity, tiny children who crawl through the tunnels with baskets of coal on their backs, the fear of collapse, mining gas and brown disease, grief at the loss of loved ones killed in one of the many mining disasters.
It is during one of these disasters that Emma comes into contact with the son of one of the ruling families, who helps her to obtain a domestic position in the city. This enables the writer to show the almost unbridgable gap between the classes, and as well as showing the roots of social debate when a sympathetic journalist who serializes Emma’s stories of life in the mines in his newspaper.
Van der Vlugt evokes a lucid social-historical picture, in which the different parties are allowed maximum space, thus enabling young readers to form their own opinions. The main character represents that youthful optimism which refuses to submit to the status quo and seeks advancement. Emma is prepared to work hard, but she wants to learn as well and she resists the current views as put forward by a friend: ‘God has granted us each a place in life and we must be content to accept that place. Birth determines whether we are rich or poor and there’s nothing you can do to change that. It’s not wrong to want more, it’s impossible.’ The author follows Emma’s development with compassion. She cannot fail to involve the prosperous young people of the twenty-first century.
by Bregje Boonstra