In 1946, when 11-year-old Ernest Hillen first arrived in Toronto from Indonesia, a group of his new schoolmates surrounded the Dutch-speaking immigrant at recess. Hillen was sure the boys were about to fight him. “New boys always had to fight,” recalls Hillen in his graceful and touching new memoir, Small Mercies.
“All over the world, that’s how it was.”
SMALL MERCIES By Ernest Hillen (Viking, 206 pages, $27.99)
Hillen, today a respected Toronto magazine editor and writer, must certainly have seemed odd enough to arouse the expected hostility.
Like all Dutch colonial schoolchildren, he wore short pants. He also spoke little English.
But much to his amazement, the other boys met him with kindness.
They taught him to play baseball, even allowing him extra turns at bat and cheering when he got a hit.
Small Mercies is full of such surprises. Fresh, exquisitely detailed and suffused with tenderness, the book is a fitting sequel to The Way of a Boy, Hillen’s muchpraised 1993 reminiscence of how he and his family survived more than three years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War. Small Mercies opens as Ernie, his older brother, Jerry, and their Canadian-born mother, Anna, sail from Indonesia after their release. Their Dutch-born father, John Hillen, a former estate manager, has remained behind to get a new job and re-establish their fortunes. Anna is temporarily taking the boys to her parents’ home in Toronto. As it turns out, they remain in Canada for two years—the period covered by the book. During that time, Ernie not only suffers the usual adolescent growing pains, but he also develops a deep attachment to what Hillen calls the promise of Canada—a compelling attractiveness in its people and landscapes that would draw him back in his late teens.
Necessarily, Small Mercies relies less on extreme events than The Way of a Boy: smoking illicit cigarettes beside Lake Ontario can hardly compare with trying to outwit Japanese guards. But if the sequel lacks the high drama of the earlier book, it is even better at catching the contradictory currents in a boy’s soul. In the camps, Hillen’s emotions were somewhat deadened by the daily trauma, but in Toronto he was able to reclaim the precious sensitivities of ordinary life. This makes the occasional intrusion of violence in Small Mercies more gripping, in its way, than the brutalities of the POW camp. When Hillen’s grandfather erupts in a rage and repeatedly kicks him for some minor misdemeanor, the event is deeply shocking—and a reminder that Japanese prison guards have no monopoly on cruelty.
There is much to praise in Small Mercies, from the way Hillen has interwoven interludes of sadness and joy to his creation of memorable characters, such as Ernie’s hard-bitten, cigarette-smoking grandmother. And he skilfully sustains the book’s underlying pathos. As he falls in love with Canada and his new life, Ernie realizes he does not want to go back to Indonesia—but he has no choice. The book’s final scene shows him hiding his misery as his delighted father meets his returning family. It is a moving, emotionally ambiguous climax to a fine book—and a nice lead-in, if Hillen’s readers should be so lucky, to yet another instalment.
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