Life in a eighteenth-century fishing village
For years Maarten ’t Hart has been planning to write a historical novel (what he calls a documentary novel) about his birthplace Maassluis. Het psalmenoproer (Psalms and Riots) is that novel. At the macro-level the book deals with the eighteenth-century struggle between supporters and opponents of a new, faster way of singing psalms, a symptom of the conflict between Protestant factions.
At the micro-level a father-son quarrel is central. Roemer Stroombreker, a shipowner, is a typical ’t Hart hero, a lover of nature and music, with a tendency to question the Bible. Roemer’s queries when a boy are hilarious: how was Noah’s ark able to accommodate all those thousands of couples? And how did the seals manage? ‘Did they shuffle laboriously overland to the ark?’ Roemer is neutral in the argument about the psalms, but he is thought to be among the supporters and that brings him into direct conflict with his son Gilles. This son is the issue of a single sexual encounter with Anna, a red-haired net mender whom Roemer could not marry. It had been arranged that he should marry Diderica Croockewerff, an enormous woman whose dowry consisted of two ships, making Roemer the biggest ship owner of Maassluis.
Roemer may be one of the leading men of the town, but this brings him little joy. He worries about all kinds of things. Most of all he likes to be in his small office doing his accounts, or watching the birds flying above the harbour. A good relationship with his son – something that really matters to him – never develops. The son hates him.
Psalms and Riots keeps the reader spellbound from the first page to the last. ’t Hart knows exactly how to engage the reader, with lively conversations between Roemer and Spanjaard the schoolmaster, with the description of the political troubles between the Patriots and the Prince’s party, and the attempts to obtain state support for the declining fisheries. His list of sources shows how much he has tried to be historically accurate for the background of the story, and this includes the style used.