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Small mercies: A boy after war by Ernest…

Small mercies: A boy after war

by Ernest Hillen

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This is a sequel to Hillen's The Way of a Boy (96:19), which told of his life as prisoner of the Japanese through the war in Indonesia. Small Mercies takes up the story at the end of the war, and the reunion with his father and older brother (Ernest had been in camp with his mother). Times were tough at the end of the war, and it was decided that Ernest's father would stay to work in Indonesia, then in the grips of the independence movement, while Ernest, his brother Jerry, and his mother would travel to Canada. Ernest's mother was Canadian and had parents living in Toronto. Events did not unfold as planned, and they had to spend longer in London than expected while Ernest's mother sorted out their status and got permission to travel to Canada. Grandma and Grandpa were older, very set in their ways, and willing to have their daughter and grandsons board with them, but not much more. Ernest was early thrown into an independent lifestyle (which of course had been his experience in surviving the camp), with an absentee father often lecturing from a distance in letters; the memoir is about his growing love and appreciation of Canada, his adolescence and search for his "place", his early appreciation of and longing for girls, his "fitting-in" in the new world, and through it all, despite the poverty of their material circumstances, his strong sense of family.

The book is very well written. Hillen has a wonderful, easy style that conveys very nicely a sense of places and people and the confused emotions of an adolescent boy. Interesting to note how Hillen describes trying to tell people about life in the camps; they would ask, of course, but their eyes would soon glaze-over and their attention would wane because they had nothing in their experience that could act as a reference to allow them to truly understand or empathize; soon they learned to respond with some stock phrases or descriptions that would serve the purpose and keep the conversation short. Not at all unlike our own experience when we first came back from abroad and were full of stories about life in Russia or Belgium, but while people were polite, we quickly learned to respond in a similar fashion, or to focus on humourous or specific events only.

The book ends with Ernest, his brother and mother returning to Indonesia. Hillen now lives and writes in Canada, and he was still only about 14 when he returned to Indonesia so we can hope that there is at least one more memoir to come from him.
  John | Dec 1, 2005 |
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