Saturday, 19 January 2002

Hendrik Willem van Loon: van Loon's Lives (1943)

Edition: Harrap & Co, 1943
Review number: 1046

The idea for this book is a charming one in writing aimed at older children (with an interest in history). In a small village in the Netherlands in the thirties, two men are able to invite historical people to dinner once a week; van Loon's Lives is the story of these dinner parties. Each chapter is one of these parties, with a different group of guests; some work well, but others are nightmarish. Each visit is accompanied by a set of lively little biographies of the guests, lacking in the objectivity that academic historians would insist on, but much more enjoyable than most of their summaries would be.

The book was produced (in the United States) after the occupation of the Netherlands, and is at least in part meant to be a reminder of what people were fighting for, a celebration of the Western liberal tradition. It is noticeable that in a collection of historical characters which is quite Euro-centric, there are particularly few Germans, only musicians Beethoven and the Bach family in fact. The shadow of Hitler's rise and what it might mean in the Netherlands and for the whole of Europe is referred to frequently. Although van Loon may have partly wanted to serve a patriotic purpose with his stories in a United States not yet at war, he did not allow this to take over his work.

This kind of story has been sadly out of fashion for most of the last generation, but to those who are interested in history, the dinner parties will still be entertaining.

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