De Zevensprong

By Tonke Dragt

Tonke Dragt is one of more well-known Dutch authors of children’s books. Her work often veers in the direction of the fantastic, although she sometimes shies away before committing herself. De Zevensprong is a case in point.

I didn’t read this book myself; rather it has been read to me. You see, we have the family custom that Irina and I take turns reading a book to each other and the children before bedtime. When it was Irina’s turn, she proposed ‘De Zevensprong’, one of her favourites.

I have never been fond of Tonke Dragt. I dislike her style of sketching: the cover you see here is one she painted herself. I also disliked her style of writing, and disliked her stories when I was a child. I never knew why, but I think I can now touch the matter with the point of a needle.

I think that, in ‘De Zevensprong’ at least, she is being unfair to her protagonist. I am fairly sure that whenever he wanted to be smart, the author pulled him back, telling him that, for story reasons and because the plot couldn’t stand the strain, she couldn’t let him do that.

There is also a marked tendency, present in other Dutch children’s books, too, to picture all grown men as either evil, or funny. I call that the ‘daddy king’ syndrome — whenever you encounter a king in a pre-teen book or verse, he’s really daddy, and we all know that daddy is a silly fool, don’t we? Wise, smart, mummy^Wqueen not only has to clean up after her kids, but also after her husband. Tonke Dragt suffers dreadfully from this reflex.

In ‘De Zevensprong’, the Queen is juffrouw Rosmarijn, the king de heer Thomtidom. Frans van der Steg is the child, and the rest is supporting cast. I’m afraid I have to relegate Geert-Jan Grisenstijn to the role of McGuffin. With this introduction of the dramatis personae, it’s time to give a thumbnail sketch of the plot:

Somewhere in the Dutch countryside, near the village Langelaan and a town that’s simply called ‘Stad’ and a village called ‘Dorp’, there’s place where six, or seven, roads cross. The ‘Zevensprong’. Young Frans van der Steg has just been appointed as a teacher to the Fifth Form of the village school. He’s a pretty good teacher, his pupils are well-behaved and he can spend the last few minutes of the day regaling his pupils with imaginative stories.

Then he gets invited by the squire of the manor ‘Het Trappenhuis’ to become the governor of his nephew, Geert-Jan Grisenstijn. After some to-and-fro-ing, Frans discovers that Geert-Jan is being swindled out of his inheritance by the squire, graaf Grisenstijn. A conspiracy headed by Geert-Jan’s former guardian, mejuffrouw Rosmarijn exists to oust the grim count, and Frans gets roped in.

He accepts the job, makes the acquintance of Geert-Jan, who improves considerably when you get to know him better, and finally manages to defeat the count, mainly through some brave bungling.

The fantastic element in the book is provided by the split-personality Roberto/Rob/Brozem (which means yobbo, I guess), the magic or magical tricks of Thomtidom, the wholesome herbs of mejuffrouw Rosmarijn and an ancient prophecy. And a lot of mysterious hinting that never gets anywhere.

I think, as you will have gathered by now, that I think the book is flawed. Not so flawed, though, that it isn’t an enjoyable experience. Some of that enjoyment must be put down on the account of Irina’s reading, but some of it is due to the author. She does manage to make me care about her people, even about the clumsy protagonist — I literally fumed when he was time and again forced to Not Get It.

Tonke Dragt is still alive, and semi-productive. Her work has been translated into other languages, even English, but you will have to track the books down through second-hand bookshops.