Over the past few years, I have been winding my way through a number of books about World War II. I close each book with a pounding ache of loss, struggling to grasp such atrocity. And while I can never presume to know how God was working in the souls of those whose faith was tested beyond all understanding, I am particularly grateful when a book such as He Leadeth Me or The Hiding Place leaves me with a sense of hope in God’s goodness in the midst of such evil.
World War II can be a difficult topic to broach with children, as we look for ways to strike the right balance between the reality of evil and the goodness of God. One children’s book that strikes this balance beautifully is Hilda van Stockum’s The Winged Watchman.
Set in Holland during World War II, The Winged Watchman is the story of ten-year-old Joris Verhagen, whose father operates a windmill during the Nazi occupation, and of his family. The Verhagens face a series of choices: Will they help rescue a stranded English aviator? Will they take in several children whose parents cannot feed them? Will they hide a fugitive prisoner who escaped from the Germans? Every choice bears potentially fatal consequences—the Verhagens have watched friends and neighbors arrested and taken away, and everyone knows that their neighbor, Leendert, is a traitor prowling for the chance to hand over his countrymen to the Nazis. And yet, the Verhagens’ choice is always the same: Yes. They will help everyone who needs help.
The situation in Holland is dire—many are starving and freezing to death—and van Stockum does not sugar-coat the devastation. Yet, she sounds notes of laughter that remind readers that life can still hold joy in the midst of pain—for example, when three-year-old Trixie kneels down during the family rosary to pray, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary….”
What most makes this book stand out among other historical fiction novels set in this era, though, is its unflinching description of the Catholic faith as the Verhagens’ guiding light. The characters’ faith is not just a side factor alluded to once or twice; it is consistently and clearly the driving force of their lives.
From the first chapter, when Joris prays to God to let him keep a puppy he rescued from abusive owners, to the last chapter, when we hear part of Father Kobus’ sermon at Easter Mass, the Catholic faith is inextricably woven into the fabric of the story.
Faith to Confess
One of my favorite scenes happens when Joris goes to confession. After stumbling upon the hiding place of an English airman who escaped from a downed plane, Joris has been feeding and helping the aviator; but he is worried that his parents will be arrested if they know about the situation, so he has been keeping it a secret, stealing food from the kitchen, lying to his mother, and sneaking out at night without permission.
Making his weekly visit to confession, Joris sees the red light above the altar and knows that it is really Jesus to Whom he will confess his sins; but still, he is nervous when he tells Father Kobus of his transgressions. After giving Joris absolution, Father Kobus says gently, “Always be frank and tell your dear mother everything. She loves you. Now say three Hail Marys for your penance, and go in peace….”
Going to the altar rail to say his Hail Marys, Joris feels “lovely inside, all washed and clean and forgiven.” He remembers the good priest’s advice and tells his parents everything.
While an increasing number of children’s books and shows seem to promote dishonesty and deceit, this book reminds young readers of the importance of honesty and trust in a family.
Faith to Forgive
In other scenes, the Verhagens struggle to reconcile the demands of the Gospel with the horror of the Germans’ actions.
During the family rosary, Mother adds so many Hail Marys to pray for specific intentions that “Joris sometimes thought he’d get holes in his knees.” But she refuses to pray for the Germans—until Father convinces her otherwise.
“We have to pray for our enemies,” he says, and so Mother does. But when she and Joris see the German S.S. men force a Jewish family from their home and load them into a van, Mother’s faith is tested.
“Never, never was there such a sin since Adam fell,” she says angrily. Yet when Joris asks whether the Germans are the only wrongdoers, Mother knows the answer that the Gospel would give.
“The Germans are people, like us,” Mother tells Joris. “They chose the wrong leader for themselves, that’s all. The minute we disobey God, we’re all just as bad. Remember, Joris, that you must love others as if they were our Lord. All of them, without exception. That is what He taught us.”
“But you don’t love the Germans, do you?” Joris asks.
Mother weeps. “No, I don’t, I can’t. They have done things that are too terrible…I can’t forgive them…I’m sorry, it is too hard….”
And so Joris learns with amazement that it is not only children, but grown-ups, too, who sometimes cannot do what they know is right. Eventually, Mother prays for God to forgive the Germans even though she is unable to bring herself to do so.
Later in the book, a Jewish prisoner sets an example of forgiveness toward her German captors, with a faith that leaves Mother awestruck and seems to pave the way for her to be able to do likewise.
Faith to Conquer Evil
Van Stockum does not shy away from the deep questions that such a vicious war brings about in children’s hearts. In terms that are authentic and simple (but not oversimplified), she helps readers understand the philosophical and theological issues that arise when faith faces evil.
When the Germans threaten to steal his beloved dog, Joris goes to the church to pray. There, Father Kobus talks to him sympathetically about the complex problem of why God allows evil.
“What do you expect God to do?” Father Kobus asks.
“Well, He could kill Hitler and all those awful people who started the war,” Joris answers.
“And not give them the chance to be sorry, to save their souls?” asks the priest. Yes, Joris can see that God would worry about the enemies’ souls. “The evil is inside,” Father Kobus says, “and has to be conquered inside. That is where God works. It is in your heart that the Lord will conquer.”
Such gentle guidance and wise insight, coupled with masterful storytelling, is the core, I believe, of the The Winged Watchman’s excellence. On a human level, it is a moving and compelling story. Even more, on a spiritual level, it is an inspiring and encouraging testament to the strength of the Catholic faith that anchors us in times of great trial.
“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith,” St. John says in 1 John 5:4. Echoing the evangelist, The Winged Watchman reminds readers that a family born of God overcomes the world and gains victory in the faith that faces evil and wins.
Editor’s note: Pictured above are Cromwell tanks of Guard’s Armoured Division, British XXX Corps driving along “Hell’s Highway” toward Nijmegen, the Netherlands, September 20, 1944.