Review: Donna Thorland’s THE DUTCH GIRL

Dutch_GirlDonna Thorland’s Renegades Of the American Revolution series, of which The Dutch Girl is fourth, is unique and wonderful. Miss Bates thinks it should become one of the great rom-sagas and certainly deserving of the same status as the dubious Outlander (Miss Bates isn’t a fan). Thorland cleverly interweaves history, adventure, spy thriller, and romance. Thorland’s Renegades are as much fun to read as Willig’s Carnation series (Miss Bates is a HUGE fan).

Thorland’s heroines are intelligent, beautiful, marginalized, caught up in the politics of war and espionage, but always, at core, ethical, admirable, and independent. They may start out naïve and young, but they’re survivors. They learn to navigate turbulent waters of intrigue and political interests without ever losing themselves. At their side, though often on opposite sides of the American/British divide, are heroes, somewhat more knowing, experienced, and equally embedded in the political interests of their day. The heroines, however, tap into the heroes’ romantic, protective core, an inner self the heroes have forgotten, seemingly discarded, or tucked away as years of political and/or military expediency hardened them. The eponymous Dutch Girl is Annatje Hoppe, whose alias is Miss Anna Winters, spinster New York school teacher. Our hero is childhood sweetheart, disgraced and disinherited-landed-rich-boy-no-more highwayman, Gerrit Van Haren.  

Each novel in Thorland’s Renegades treats one aspect of the American Revolutionary War and imagines people’s loyalties and personal stories caught up in it. The Dutch Girl focuses on the Dutch settlers (that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagined in his final glorious Gatsby paragraphs) who settled New York and New Jersey and established patroonships, powerful, wealthy manorial estates. The estates’ feudal set-up incited tenant riots, one of which Annatje Hoppe’s father led. When the riot was quashed and Anna’s father arrested and killed, Annatje became a fugitive.

Circumstances brought her to the attention of the Widow, Angela Ferrars, an enigmatic spy who repeatedly appears in Thorland’s books, a woman whose only revelation is her hatred of the British. The Widow helped Annatje become Miss Anna Winters, respectable English schoolmarm. Anna’s past comes calling one day several years later in the form of Kate Grey, “Miss Ashcroft,” and the heroine of the first Renegade novel, The Turncoat (what a hoot to see her again). At Miss Ashcroft’s appearance, Anna knows her past has come calling: “When you lived beneath layers of secrets piled like blankets against the cold, losing a single covering meant you’d freeze to death.” Kate, a Rebel spy, compels Anna, whose sympathies were ever with the Rebels, to return to Harenwyck, the estate where she lost everything she knew and loved, her family and the patroon’s son, Gerrit, the boy who never saw her as a “klompen girl,” a lesser, but as the sunshine that shone on him when they met and wooed behind the church.

A reluctant spy, Anna agrees to Kate’s plan to return to Harenwyck: ” … she had decided a long time ago that she would always meet fate head-on.” Reluctant or not, Miss Bates loved Anna for her determination to confront whatever challenges life threw her way, to survive, to appreciate a warm bed and a sympathetic companion. Anna is tasked with convincing the present patroon, Gerrit’s younger brother, Andries, to cede strategic land and sea access to the Rebels. Anna tells herself that she agrees to Kate’s plan ” … to safeguard the academy’s future – and her own.” But her reason isn’t only to persevere. She realizes that returning to the site of her near-destruction and father’s death “was to journey into her past … because there was no other way forward.” Anna/Annatje must confront the past immediately, barely past Harenwyck’s borders, when the carriage bearing her and Andries’s estate manager and man of business, Theunis Ten Broeck, is attacked by highwaymen seeking the gold Theunis bears to Andries. The lead highwayman is, of course, Anna’s great love, Gerrit Van Haren. In this way, Anna and Gerrit’s love rekindles, but their chances of being together as they navigate their opposing loyalties and familial ties are precarious. 

Gerrit is as compelling a character as Anna/Annatje. His young encounter with his “klompen girl” was his first realization of class and economic differences stemming from injustice and inequity. When his young self realized that this beautiful, intelligent girl went hungry, when he noted her wooden shoes to his fine, leather ones, he had to change his cruel father’s way of running the estate. After he was sent away to school and told his Annatje was dead, he returned from Leiden to find his father dead and younger brother ensconced as patroon. His mission becomes clear to him: ” … he meant to wrest Harenwyck from his brother, Andries. It was all that mattered to him: justice for the tenants. He wanted the power of the landlords broken.” Gerrit’s political and economic aspirations are most sympathetic. It is no wonder that Anna cannot help but love him all over again: he stands for her beloved father’s ideals.

But Anna’s life has been won with hard lessons and she struggles with Gerrit’s ideals, as she did her father’s. She cannot accept that change must come about with violence. She wants to work for reconciliation and compromise. Revolutionary action as violent upheaval or incremental concession takes the form of a debate between Gerrit and Andries, respectively. Once Anna meets and converses with Andries, she can see both sides. In the end, Gerrit’s perspective to let people decide for themselves where and how they’ll live and make a living is contrasted to Andries’s “patronizing” noblesse oblige. Noblesse oblige depends on the individual lord and his propensities; it can as easily be droit de seigneur as largesse and benevolent dictatorship.

In the end, however, what Miss Bates loved most about Thorland’s Dutch Girl is its upholding of small daily kindnesses and the elevation of the domestic, romance world of love, affection, and conviviality. When Gerrit’s highwayman-ways waylay Anna’s coach, his eventual siding with her pacifist perspective (beautifully, subtly linked to Annatje’s Quaker mother, whose perspective proves stronger than Annatje’s father’s revolutionary fervor) is foreshadowed when he stops the robbery to rescue a kitten. The kitten, beloved of Gerrit and Anna, Scrappy, becomes an important image:”Gerrit spared a glance at Miss Winters, who was slipping a fish into her basket and cooing in a very unschoolteacherish manner. He had to remember to do something about that kitten. If he could not keep his sworn oaths to nations, he must keep his small promises, must fulfill his lesser obligations, or he would be nothing at all.” Thorland’s novel is a wonderful reminder that the sweep of history cannot stand in the way of the “small promises” of every day life. How can we keep our national promises when we don’t keep them to those nearest and dearest to us?

Anna sacrifices for Gerrit, so that his fate will not be her father’s, without compromising anyone else. Anna doesn’t betray anyone or anything in this novel because she is willing to put herself in harm’s way to save everyone she loves. Gerrit is an equally wonderful hero. From the moment he reunites with Annatje, every move he makes, political and personal, is about ensuring that she will never suffer again, never fight alone again. When Anna once again believes herself alone and abandoned, she rescues herself. At the end of her road, and that of the many women caught in men’s wars, interests, and intrigues, are a pair of strong hands to catch her, for the simple reason, says Gerrit, that ” ‘Annatje, this is me, and this is you. That is why I’m here.’ “

Miss Bates loved every moment of reading Donna Thorland’s Dutch Girl, as would her reading companion, Miss Austen. With her, Miss Bates says that The Dutch Girl is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Donna Thorland’s The Dutch Girl is published by New American Library (Penguin Books). It was released on March 1st and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Berkley/NAL for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.

6 thoughts on “Review: Donna Thorland’s THE DUTCH GIRL

  1. Miss Bates
    What a wonderful review of one of my favorite books of this year. You managed to explain every reason I loved it. Thorland’s books are always so nuanced–no black or white, just the full spectrum of gray. In addition, the history nerd in me just wallows in how well researched the books are and how well Thorland manages to NOT cram all that research down the reader’s throat.

    May I suggest for your TBR Sara Donati’s “Into the Wilderness”? It takes place in upstate NY post American Revolution (alert readers will recognize a bit of it as an homage to the Daniel Day Lewis movie version of ‘Last of the Mohicans’). Or perhaps Eliot Pattison’s excellent mystery “The Bone Rattler”–also upstate NY, but late 1750s. ‘Into the Wilderness’ has a most satisfying romance, ‘Bone Rattler’ has just a hint of a possible romance.

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    • Greetings! You’re absolutely right. I love history, but often feel that historical fiction is, well, ho-hum. Not so with Thorland’s books (as with Willig’s), the history is interwoven with lively characterization and a galloping plot. They’ve got depth and hold my enthralled interest without fail. As do, Susanna Kearsley’s and Simone St. James.

      I bought a ratty copy of Donati’s book at the churchy bazaar. I can’t wait to read it. I believe she also has a new book out! I’m going to look for that Bone Rattler. You always give the best recs!

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      • Thank you. If you like ‘Bone Rattler’, there are several follow-on books, with the promise of more. This is one of the few mystery series where I actually buy a dead tree copy for my ‘keeper shelves’. Donati’s Wilderness series runs 6 books (all absolutely wonderful–I am a sucker for sagas!). Her newest. ‘The Gilded Age’ features a later generation of the main family of the Wilderness series. You do not need to have read the first series to enjoy ‘The Gilded Age’.. (She is working on a follow-on to ‘The Gilded Age’, hooray!).
        If you want to see what Donati can do with a modern setting, check out ‘The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square’, written as Rosina Lippi. The story is no way near as weird as the title!

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  2. I look forward to reading this after I finish the other Thorland I own. Not sure if it’s The Turncoat or Mistress Firebrand. I grew up in the thick of Dutch-settled upstate New York, so a Dutch heroine would be refreshing.

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    • As Barb said, Thorland’s novels are impeccably researched, but the history is beautifully interwoven. There’s A LOT here about the Dutch in upper state New York, but it’s cultural as much as political. I especially enjoyed the food references! I think you’re going to enjoy it. 🙂

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