BOOKS

Captive boyhood

A man recalls his time in a POW camp in Java

JOHN BEMROSE August 30 1993
BOOKS

Captive boyhood

A man recalls his time in a POW camp in Java

JOHN BEMROSE August 30 1993

Captive boyhood

BOOKS

A man recalls his time in a POW camp in Java

THE WAY OF A BOY By Ernest Hillen (Penguin, 200 pages, $25.99)

Some childhood events cast a shadow so long that they dominate an entire life. In 1942, when Ernest Hillen was seven, he and his family—they lived on a Dutch colonial plantation in Java—were put in a prisoner-of-war camp by the Japanese. Now 59, Hillen, an editor at Saturday Night magazine in Toronto, has distilled his many years of contemplating their ordeal into a graceful and moving memoir called The Way of a Boy. Hillen’s account illustrates many extremes of human nature, from arrogant cruelty to great bravery and kindness. And it does so in a deceptively simple style that manages to combine a boy’s naive candor with the wisdom of adult hindsight.

When the book opens, Hillen’s father had already been placed in a camp. The Japanese then took Ernest, his older brother, Jerry, and their mother to a camp for women and children—the first of several they would occupy until 1945. For the boys, imprisonment was always something of an adventure, thanks to the sustaining spirit of their mother, a Canadian who is the quiet hero of the story. She managed to create a “home” even in the scant private space the Japanese allowed them: she would put up pictures, celebrate birthdays and generally cheer her sons even though she was often exhausted from forced labor.

Hunger was a constant enemy. And the guards were ready to punish the slightest sign of disrespect. One of Hillen’s best anecdotes concerns a family friend, Zuseke Crone, a witty woman who broke the rules by keeping a picture of her husband. An enraged guard beat her savagely about the head, all the while standing on a suitcase, because he was too short to reach her otherwise. In the end, writes Hillen, the guard went off exhausted, and only then did Crone allow herself to collapse.

The Way of a Boy is full of such stories. Much more than a record of unusual events, it shows how, in matters of survival, the courageous refusal to abandon the heart’s allegiances can make all the difference.

JOHN BEMROSE