The Occupied Garden by Kristen den Hartog – Book Review

img_1793Twice in four years Kristen den Hartog turned up in my life with timely messages about writing memoir.

Our first meeting was 2008, Kristen as guest speaker for Allyson Latta’s Memoir Short Story Awards Night and Alzheimer’s Fundraiser in Unionville, Ontario. Although before that time Kristen considered herself a fiction writer, she and her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, collaborated to write and publish an acclaimed family memoir The Occupied Garden. The story chronicles the emotional events affecting their paternal family under Nazi occupation in Holland during WW II. Kristen’s message in 2008, as was her message April 15, 2012, as guest speaker for the Writers’ Community of York Region (WCYR), is that detailed research will take up a lot of your early time with writing a book.

Memoir writers have a sense of family myth gleaned from passed down tales, retold to either strengthen or dilute judgments. For Kristen and Tracy, with little concrete information other than a handful of memories from their father and his siblings, the research process revealed a depth they didn’t believe existed before their curious journey into truth. The two women committed to writing only events that actually happened, although within the telling, they used a perhapsing technique to help the reader sort through hazy details, or project the likely reactions of the people involved with the events. Knowing the myths helped pinpoint the likely behaviours within situations their parents and grandparents experienced.

The sisters currently collaborate to write a second family memoir, but this time the WW I era, to include their maternal grandparents in England. When first considering a collaboration on a book, Kristen doubted her ability to switch from fiction to memoir. But once embraced, she found the process challenging and rewarding at the same time. She and her sister research and write by email, as they live far apart. Sharing the burden of research and the joyous eureka moments of discovery is fulfilling for them.

From Kristen I learned that involving interested family members in the writing process might be helpful to me as well. I haven’t shared much of my writing with my family because I don’t want to influence their memories of our post WW II decade, the era for my story. But I’m the youngest daughter of three, and more and more I feel I need my older sisters’ collaboration for shared memories, story direction and separating lore from truth.

Kristen was born in Deep River, Ontario: a town small enough to know your neighbours, shop at businesses on Main Street, worship at one of the denominational churches, belong to the community library and go to the only movie house. Her observations mirror some of my own while growing up in the Cliffside area of Scarborough, which in the 1950s was one of many separate neighbourhoods springing up along Kingston Road east of Toronto. Settings for Kristen’s books often rely on recollections of small town living and the interactions of residents in isolated communities. Tied closely to that theme is the development of family relationships: how we see ourselves in a neighbourhood, how we treat our neighbours, how we hide things from each other within a family, where the disillusions take dangerous turns.

Memorable Moments:

  1. Speaking about memoir, Kristen emphasizes writers don’t always know the true story until they research the threads. Family myth and recollections are often clarified and expanded after digging deeper into the history of events.
  2. Conduct detailed research first, develop the story second, and continue to research as you write. Second drafts are fun if you’ve done your early research well.
  3. To find the most effective point of view to tell a story you sometimes need to break some rules.
  4. Collaboration for family memoir with can be a challenging experience that requires trust and respect for each other’s skills.

and_me_among_them_3Kristen is soft-spoken and diminutive, a stark contrast to the main character in her recent book And Me Among Them. It’s a story of Ruth,  a child born with a genetic disorder that leads to giantism. We follow a family and the disturbing dynamics within a neighbourhood: cruel classmates, a backward doctor and conflict between Ruth’s parents. The parents’ conflict is a strong secondary plot that parallels their inability to protect Ruth as she outgrows her clothes, her shoes, her room and her friendships. Kristen’s chosen point of view breaks the rules, but is so masterfully done, we’re believers.

the-girl-giantKristen is in the unique (and enviable) position of publishing her book, And Me Among Them published in Canada with Freehand Books, and the same book published in the US titled The Giant Girl by Simon & Schuster. When asked if different covers and titles will cause confusion for her readership. In gentle Kristen fashion, she smiles and says she believes it is a positive marketing decision and embraces the experience.


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