An Unlikely Hero: Adrianus Millenaar
By Adriana Millenaar Brown
Shires Press, Manchester Center, Vermont
2015, 271 pages, $29.95
It is with remarkable literary style that author Adriana Millenaar Brown has written a superb memoir of her father, An Unlikely Hero, the story of a man whose minimal education did not stand in his way as he worked through a farmer’s existence in Holland, a more industrious history in South Africa and the diplomatic service in Berlin during World War II. For this Dutchman, Adrianus Millenaar, the world was open to possibility. He was never prepared for the work that consumed most of his important years, defining his life, creating a family under the worst of social circumstances. This was a life imposed upon him, one he accepted and managed to sustain under the nearly impossible conditions under which he survived.
The Nazis knew he was performing tasks that they never would approve, and yet he continued relatively unchallenged even as he was regarded with the coolest German disdain. This part of Brown’s book, this part of her father’s history through which she also survived in childhood, takes up the last two thirds of the story she tells. It is her own memory combined with superb historical research that makes the information so fascinating.
A few quotes from her writing: “Jaak (her father) was starting to come apart as he approached the thin line of failure syndrome. He found it hard to rationalize the closing of an eminent bank in the town of Zaltbommel, ten kilometers due east from his farm on the left bank of the River Waal.” “At last disembarked from his fling out on the great seas, and his feet planted again on the alluvial clay clods of the homestead in Babylonbrook, Jaak’s muddled feelings lifted.” “She had no buck teeth. Had never worn a fur stole. Her name was not Margarida or Gretchen, and she had not come from Berlin, either. Her name was Leni (her mother), after her mother Helene. Leni, the spoiled one.” “On a Monday morning on the thirtieth day of the inhospitable month of two-faced January, in 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power by the standard process of constitutional democracy.”
These examples of Brown’s use of language are persuasive. They show a literary directness and a style of familiar authority that the author uses throughout the book. In the final sections, when the child memory of dealing with parents in wartime, when that war has never been properly introduced or explained to the child, there is less of this romantic style, but most of the book is compelling through either the writer’s uses of language or the writer’s knowledge of facts. In both halves of the work, she exposes the truth through honesty and a revelatory openness that is enthralling.
Adriana Millenaar Brown has perhaps exorcised a few ghosts with this book. She has certainly introduced her readers to a world that most never knew existed, the world of quiet diplomacy executed by a man ill-equipped to maintain it who nevertheless carried out his mission with a remarkable dexterity. In her view this unlikely hero, her father, managed to do what he did — for which he was much decorated by his government afterward — without guidance, much aid or even thanks while he almost ignored his growing family, children of a German wife exposed to a German grandmother whose allegiances are curiously undefined in the book. Some of her youthful disappointment in him seeps into the writing, but the pride she takes in his achievements based on his early years is made glorious in her prose. This is a book to read and refer to and reread again in a while. The man, and the language, merge into a literary triumph.