Afke’s tiental (Afke’s Ten, 1903) by Nynke van Hichtum is one of the first great literary works of the twentieth century for young readers in the Netherlands. The book is a lively, penetrating sketch of country life in a poverty-stricken Frisian family of farm labourers, consisting of father Marten (an agricultural worker who is dependent on seasonal work), mother Afke and ten children from nought to nineteen: a sketch with its origins in the family stories that Van Hichtum’s maid Hiltje Feenstra told her and which is close to the reality of the time, without being dominated by the degrading poverty in which working-class families lived back then.
In her typically Frisian tale, with its evocative descriptions of the lake landscape of northern Friesland and focus on Friesland’s language and traditions, Van Hichtum convincingly emphasises Afke’s devotion and love for her family, the sense of solidarity between the ten children and the family’s optimistic attitude to life, subtly demonstrating that even a poor life can be ‘rich’.
Afke’s tiental still touches readers even today, as can be seen from the sixtieth reprint with the original illustrations, in which all of the characters are depicted in a believable and human way: the children have their arguments and petty jealousies. Mother Afke, seriously weakened after the birth of her youngest ‘poppet’, sometimes has difficulty keeping her spirits up in the one-room house, where everyone crams in to spend the night. And father Marten, when on an exciting summertime sailing trip, sees a boat belonging to rich people and has a painful realisation: ‘Oh, what a difference – all that abundance there, and then our poverty.’ But he says nothing, ‘because he didn’t want to spoil his children’s enjoyment of their holiday.’
So poverty does play a role, albeit it a subordinate one, in spite of Van Hichtum’s marriage to Pieter Jelles Troelstra, the militant socialist leader. Van Hichtum, a born storyteller, was opposed to writing with a political slant and wanted only to write about ten children who, even though they are inevitably confronted with life’s harsh realities on a daily basis, still clearly remain children in the way they act and the things they want. And this is precisely what made Afke’s tiental such a timeless, inspiring literary monument.