The Little Captain
De kleine kapitein (The Little Captain, 1970) is one of the most appealing children’s stories ever to have been written in Dutch. Rarely has the spirit of a nine-year-old (boy or girl, it doesn’t matter which) been understood so completely and been quite so irresistibly enchanted.
Just imagine it happened to you. You live in a village by the sea and, one day, waves as high as a tower block dump a ship onto the dunes. And from that ship, the Neverleak, crawls a boy who says that he’s the captain. Of course you’re going to help him repair the Neverleak, and wait with him for the huge wave to turn around and get his boat afloat once again.
And then, while all the other children are asleep, that special storm begins to rise. Tubby, Marinka and Timid Tony are the only ones awake and they go with the Little Captain. Far away from school and parents, they have the craziest adventures on the island of Great and Growing, and visit a fire-spitting mountain and a ghost town built on stilts. And Biegel wouldn’t be Biegel if there weren’t a thread running through the story to tie everything together.
However, this colourful, fairytale Odyssey for children was certainly not Biegel’s favourite book. Although it was probably his best-selling title and the one that children most appreciated, later in life he was sometimes rather grouchy about his most adventurous creations, perhaps because they were so much more light-hearted than his more profound masterworks.
He was wrong about this, however, because the masterly style of this book really is a match for his other titles. And De kleine kapitein is also infused with elements that typify Biegel’s work: the desire to go off on an adventure and yet, at the same time, being scared of the idea; the uncomplicated world of boyhood, contrasted with threats from the big outside world; and the fear of becoming an adult, which in his books is always just about, once again, averted.
By Pjotr van Lenteren