Toen mijn vader een struik werd
Toen mijn vader een struik werd (When My Dad Turned Into a Bush) is a title that could only have been dreamed up by such a highly original and creative mind as Joke van Leeuwen’s. It sounds like a good, fun read, gently poetic and absurd and it immediately makes us want to find out what lies behind the words.
In both words and pictures, Van Leeuwen’s latest offering is just as masterfully and imaginatively composed as all of her previous children’s books, with wacky jokes and puns, surprising and original pictures and a typical Van Leeuwen protagonist who the reader immediately warms to: Toda is honest, idiosyncratic, enterprising and, like all children, she views the world from a different angle, from below, which guarantees a healthy dose of absurd logic.
However, this story, while clearly by Joke van Leeuwen, is a lot less cheerful than the title suggests and than we’re accustomed to seeing in Van Leeuwen’s books. Right from the beginning, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a harrowing story about the futility of war, any war: the perfectly captured child’s perspective means that Van Leeuwen’s honest, critical view of society is laudably free of time and space.
When Toda’s father is called up “to defend some people from some other people”, Toda sees pictures of soldiers in her father’s military handbook disguising themselves as bushes to deceive the enemy. On the one hand, she finds it reassuring – no one would just shoot a bush – but on the other hand Toda also realises that the enemies can disguise themselves too. And “if they all turn into bushes, how will they know who’s on their side and who’s the enemy?”
When the war comes too close, Toda can’t stay with her grandmother any longer and she leaves for her mother’s war-free country as a small war refugee. Her escape route takes her through the incomprehensible, inhuman and terrifying world of war.
Sadness fills you when Toda remarks that her “stomach is full of homesickness”. Fear strikes you when she dreams about her father turning into a bare bush, because “the winter was in his body”. Loneliness overwhelms you when Toda feels like a “wrongly delivered parcel” in a strange and foreign country and only her father and grandmother still know she exists.
The lightness of this unique small story is as unbearable as being.