The beloved children’s author grasped the importance of the everyday, loved beauty and light, and cherished family.
My youngest sibling started out as a profound disappointment to me and the rest of us Schutte children. Not because he wasn’t wonderful, but because he wasn’t a twin.
See, there were Joan, Patsy, Peter, Angela, Timmy, and Catherine. They are the Mitchell children — the stars of Hilda van Stockum’s Mitchells trilogy — and we Schuttes love them. When we first discovered them, they matched our family in ages and genders. That is, until the third book, when they had twin boys and we only got one. Life is full of these little sorrows, but it is also full of orphaned squirrels, adventures in the woods, secret clubs, and much more, all of which we were reminded of as we read and reread these charming stories.
The author of these engaging tales was born in 1908 in Holland, the daughter of Dutch Royal Navy officer Abraham John van Stockum and his wife, Olga. Hilda’s early life in Holland and her teen years spent in Ireland gave her a deep love for both countries and informed the stories she was to write. An affinity and talent for art brought Van Stockum to the School of Art in Dublin, and she carried on those studies at the Dutch Academy in Amsterdam.
Brought up by agnostic parents, Van Stockum still had a deep sense of the spiritual from an early age, which impelled her toward religion and, ultimately, God. In her piece “The Light and Love of Ordinary Families,” Johanna Bittle recounts this story that Van Stockum told:
I said I wanted to go to church. My parents . . . sent me with the servants to the village church: a whitewashed, chilly affair with nothing that would appeal to a child. There was only a black-coated man talking a long time in a peculiar voice. I decided that I had been fooled; it wasn’t a church at all; and I didn’t ask to go again. But one day when I was walking with my mother, we passed a Catholic Church, and I immediately dragged my mother inside. “This is a church!” I cried, sniffing the incense. “This is what I meant; this is where God is.” Mother thought it all very dangerous and unsuitable and quickly hurried me away.
This desire for God, and an eye-opening encounter with the writings of G. K. Chesterton, eventually led Van Stockum and her children to convert to Catholicism in 1938.
Though she is never preachy in her tales, themes of faith are woven into the stories, adding a richness and sincerity to them. In her earlier works, The Mitchells and the Bantry Bay series, Van Stockum focused on the beauty of the everyday: the joy that is eating a delicious picnic, the thrill of putting on a Christmas play for the grownups, the amusing names little ones insist on giving their toys (Angela Mitchell’s doll, Traincrack, is a legend in our house). Their subject is family life shown simply, without sappy sentimentality, full of messes and wonder.
Van Stockum’s own children, upon whom the Mitchells are based, were a constant source of inspiration for her and the main focus of her life. When she was 23, Van Stockum met her brother’s college roommate, Ervin Ross “Spike” Marlin, and they were soon married. Marlin went to the U.S. to look for work, and Van Stockum, waiting to join him once he found something, began writing and illustrating her first book, A Day on Skates. It came out in the U.S. soon after her arrival, to a fair amount of acclaim. Full of charming, detailed watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings that brought the Holland-based story to life, it tells about a school field trip using the popular Dutch mode of transportation: ice skating! While the artwork was intended to be the main focus of the book, it quickly became apparent that Van Stockum’s story was gaining the most attention.
Four years after A Day on Skates, Van Stockum published the first of her Bantry Bay series. Set in Ireland, the trilogy chronicles the doings of the lively O’Sullivan family: Father and Mother, Michael, Brigid, and the twins, Francie and Liam. Growing up, book two of this trilogy (Francie on the Run) was my personal favorite, and its vignettes and adventures have stayed with me for years. (The story of Teig Mulligan, recounted close to the end of the book, has particularly tickled my fancy, and what an amusing audio drama it would make!) These books, like the Mitchell series, strove to exemplify wholesome family life and capture the sweetness, small woes, and sacrifices that go into creating and maintaining a home, no matter where.
Van Stockum’s writing career spanned four decades, and her lighter (though not trivial) books eventually made way for stories of a more serious tone. The Winged Watchman, for example, is set in Occupied Holland as seen through the eyes of two brothers, ages eleven and 14. Despite dealing with the heavier subjects that come with writing about World War II, Van Stockum’s depictions of dark themes never become gratuitous. Evil is real. Terrible events occurred during that era, and the images painted by Van Stockum’s pen made a lasting impression on my young mind during that first reading. But here, as in her other stories, the love of family and light of faith shine through the oppressive darkness, giving readers young and old strong portraits of courage, love of country, and selflessness.
Many words, all of them more profound than mine, have been written about Van Stockum, her works, and her legacy. Just consider Johanna Bittle’s tribute to her, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s enchanting introduction for the 1934 edition of A Day on Skates, and Lydia Reynolds’s introduction to the Bethlehem Books edition of The Winged Watchman. The picture that emerges shows a woman of deep faith and keen understanding. She grasped the importance of the ordinary, loved beauty and light, and cherished family. Let us strive to understand these things, too.
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