Monday, March 30, 2020

Journey From Peppermint Street by Meindert DeJong

Source of Book: I own this (and there is some history - see below.) 

Dutch-American author Meindert de Jong didn’t write that many books, but the ones he did write are absolute classics. 

With suddenly a lot more time at home (and with my wife picking up extra shifts in the ICU right now), I have taken over a lot more of the childcare, schooling (everything is distance learning now), and household duties. I realized that, while I read a lot to the kids when the older ones were younger, I kind of got away from it with the stuff we had to do for homework checking as they got older. Thus, my youngest has not had enough in the way of reading by dad. I decided this needed to be fixed. 

My copy looks a lot like this.

I suggested we read some Meindert de Jong, and the two younger ones picked this book. This was actually my first introduction to De Jong when I was perhaps a bit younger than Lillian - who is the age of the protagonist. We happened to own this book in a cheap paperback from the early 70s - which is still the copy I own, although it is disintegrating. Journey From Peppermint Street is De Jong’s last significant book, as far as I can tell, and I wonder if it might have an autobiographical element. It is set in De Jong’s birthplace, Wierum (Wierom in the book), as is his best known book, The Wheel on the School. The author’s family emigrated to the United States when he was age 8, a year younger than the 9 year old Siebren from the story. 

Journey From Peppermint Street is the story of an epic journey, taken by Siebren. His little brother, Knillis, is ill, has an itchy rash, and his parents are extra busy. So Siebren is stuck entertaining Knillis for hours. But things start to happen. The cap salesman gives Mother a tin of chocolates, which she gives to Siebren for his hard work. Knillis grabs the metal tin, and squeezes it over Siebren’s thumb, causing a deep gash. With blood everywhere, he vomits and faints, with everything a mess, when Grandpa shows up. 

Grandpa says that his sister Anna is deathly ill, so he is walking inland to pick up his other sister Hinka, so they can visit Anna before she passes. He asks if he can take Siebren, who can then meet his great aunt and great uncle - who is huge, and also deaf and dumb. Oh, and they live in an ancient monastery in the middle of a swamp. And they will be walking half the night to get there - and Siebren has never walked further than the next village over. 

Unsurprisingly, this is already epic in Siebren’s mind. Coming on top of a rather traumatic incident, he is already emotional, and everything seems larger than life. 

But things get even crazier before the end of the trip. He meets the kind Aal, who helps him button his pants (he can’t with his thumb.) He gets a giant black ball, which he names Satan, after...well, I guess that requires its own explanation. 

Grandpa, a church leader, has had a simmering feud with the Miller of Nes, over a trifling amount of money. He tells Siebren that the miller is a “handball of Satan,” who acts strangely. Ironically, Grandpa realizes he has been foolish, and makes up with the miller during the trip, but Siebren’s overactive imagination takes over, and he starts to think that he must be a handball of Satan, because his fears and imaginings swirl in his head. One of the fascinating things about this book is the way it peers into the head of a child who feels and thinks deeply. Siebren, between his age and the overwhelming events, swings wildly between fear, disappointment, ecstasy, and longing. His fatigue at the journey, his first night alone in a strange and scary place, his mental picture of people he has never met, and so on contribute to this turbulent state of mind. 

De Jong writes this rather fantastical inner journey in a way that spoke to me at age 8, and was surprising to re-read again for the first time as an adult. I can see why it seemed almost too strong to take at the time. Although I liked it (and re-read it), I ended up liking De Jong’s other books better as a kid. Ironically, although I can remember the basic plots for The Wheel on the School, The House of Sixty Fathers, and Along Came a Dog, I never forgot the emotional landscape of Journey From Peppermint Street. The throbbing thumb. The fear of being left alone in the dark marsh. The bed in the cold giant hall with an indoor well-cistern and a frog, the huge uncle who turns out to be a witty and gentle giant, the tornado which nearly kills him. And, of course, the way the giant black ball becomes a metaphor for Siebren’s inner battles. 

It is fascinating to watch Siebren navigate his feelings about adults. Grandpa, while familiar, is distant - this is Siebren’s first time alone with just him. Grandpa is prickly but kind, encouraging but impatient, and - even by my standards - a bit optimistic about how far and late a small kid can hike. (The kids and I hike ~120 miles a year together, and have since they were little. But never until nearly midnight, and without some training first.) 

Pretty much every other character they meet after leaving Siebren’s home is a stranger to him. Who is kind? Who doesn’t even notice he is there? Is the miller truly malevolent? 

For the most part, the people he meets are just ordinary people. Although Great Aunt Hinka and Great Uncle Siebren are the best possible people - they don’t talk down to him, but expect that he can discuss serious and deep topics. Which is precisely what he needs at the time. It just isn’t the same with parents, particularly ones exhausted by work and a demanding toddler. Siebren finds exactly what he needs at that time. 

There are other fun things in the book which my kids enjoyed just as I had. The bullfrog who lives in the cistern, Vrosk. (Which is really the perfect onomatopoeic name for a frog.) The giant pike with its sharp teeth and tricky bones. The secret passage under the monastery. The swamp at night. The dessicated rat that died years before of hunger and thirst. The giant symbolic ball. 

The book was as good as I remembered it, and I am glad that the kids found it interesting as well. 


Interesting historical note:

It had been so long since I had read this, that I had entirely forgotten where it came from. On the first inside page is a stamp, reading, “Harbor House, 2728 E. 10th St., Oakland, CA, 94601.”

As I mentioned when I wrote about There There by Tommy Orange, my late maternal grandparents lived in Oakland until I was about age 8. They ran a ministry of some sort (they were previously missionaries to Mexico, where my mom was born) called Harbor House. My memories of Oakland are both vivid and shaky, because of my age. We used to visit a few times a year from when I was 4, until they retired and moved to Oregon. At first, they lived in part of the upper portion of the “up and down” place at the address above. Then, they lived in the lower portion of a similar house a block or so away. (I thought it was in the 70th St. range, but apparently it was the 10th St. East area instead. Cut me some slack - I was all of 8 at the oldest.) 

Here is the place, as it looked as of the most recent Google Maps picture. Harbor House itself is clearly defunct, as I could not find any trace on the internet, but the house is still there. We used to have church services in Spanish behind that bay window on top, in that big room. I remember Christmas there too, with the ghastly eggnog and ginger ale “punch” they used to make. (The good food all came from my dad’s side of the family - a “Christmas Ham” was literally a canned ham with cloves stuck in it. And dead vegetables.) 

I am guessing that the book was donated to Harbor House for its library for the children of Latino immigrants to borrow. When my grandparents retired, I imagine the library was disbursed, and we got a few books. It was weird to open the book and suddenly have that flood of memories. 

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