What’s it about?
Deep in the Veluwe woods lies a secret that frustrates the Germans. Convinced that Jews are hiding close by they can find no proof.
The secret is Berkenhout, a purpose-built village of huts sheltering dozens of persecuted people.
Young tearaway Jan roams the woods looking for adventure and fallen pilots. His dream comes true when he stumbles across an American airman, Donald C. McDonald. But keeping him hidden sets off a disastrous chain of events.
Sofie, a Jewish Dutch girl, struggles to adapt to living in Berkenhout, away from her family and friends. As weeks turn to months, she’s worried they’ll abandon her altogether.
Henk Hauer, head woodman, is in charge of building the underground huts and ensuring the Berkenhout inhabitants stay safe.
But many grow suspicious of his liaisons with the Germans. Is he passing on secret information that could endanger lives?
All it takes is one small fatal slip to change the course of all their lives for ever.
About Imogen Matthews
Imogen Matthews lives in Oxford, England and is the author of two romantic fiction e-novels. The Hidden Village is her first foray into historical fiction. Born in Rijswijk, Holland, to a Dutch mother and English father, the family moved to England when Imogen was very young. She has always enjoyed holidays in Holland and since 1990, has gone regularly with her husband and two children to Nunspeet on the edge of the Veluwe woods. It was here that she discovered the story of the hidden village, and together with her mother’s vivid stories of life in WW2 Holland, she was inspired to write her next novel…
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What inspired you to write this novel?
It was about six years ago, when I was cycling with my family in the Veluwe woods near Vierhouten that I discovered a real hidden village. I know these woods very well from frequent cycling holidays with my family and we always stay near Nunspeet in the beautiful and peaceful Hoogwolde “bungalowpark”. It’s set in its own woodland and you only have to step outside the door and onto your bike and in minutes you’re on the cycle path that takes you right into the woods.
Why Holland? Well, my mother was Dutch, I was born in Rijswijk and the family moved to England when I was a toddler. Summer holidays were often spent in Holland. As I grew up the Dutch culture and language were always an important part of who I am. After I married and we had our two boys it was natural that we kept going to Holland for holidays and it’s a habit that has stuck for 27 years (and counting!).
So, back to my discovery of this place that I’d heard nothing about until on a bike ride we came across a memorial stone commemorating the people who’d provided food and shelter to Jews during the Second World War. In all the years we’d been visiting Nunspeet, no one had ever mentioned it, nor had I’d read about the details. I was intrigued.
Near the memorial stone was a board with information and illustrations of the huts that made up this hidden village, named ‘Het Verscholen Dorp’. On closer investigation and set away from the cycle path were a few underground huts, a facsimile of those that had been built on that exact spot. The huts were dark and cramped and showed how whole families had lived in them. They were forbidden to light fires or make any noise during the day when the danger was at its most acute. I found it hard to imagine what kind of a life it must have been. How could so many people have lived here for so long and not be detected by the Germans who patrolled these woods in search of Jews, defectors, members of the Resistance, fallen pilots etc? It was fascinating and chilling in equal measure.
I came away wanting to know more, but also was starting to formulate the idea of a fictional account of what life might have been for people forced to leave their family and friends and to live apart from society for nearly two years. I needed to do my own research.
Your novel starts out from historical facts. How did you go about researching and deciding how you were going to tell this story?
Back home, I began my internet search for information, but found very little apart from sketchy accounts of people who had helped the operation and some details of the construction of the huts. On the one hand, it was frustrating there wasn’t more; on the other, it provided me with an almost blank canvas to construct my own fictional story. After more googling I found a book called “Het Verscholen Dorp” that had been written in 1974 and was out of print. I came across a secondhand copy on the Dutch website bol.com and promptly bought it. It was quite worn when it arrived, but was full of the kind of information that I’d been wanting. The author, an A.Visser, had spoken to people who lived in the area as well as some who had lived through the war, who provided old photographs and diagrams of the construction of the huts. It was hard going reading through the text, but my reading Dutch is quite good and google translate helped me when I got stuck on certain words and phrases.
What I didn’t want to do was to write another historical account of the hidden village. I was keen to write a novel with two different perspectives: from those living inside the village and those on the outside. My two main characters are young, which was another reason for writing a novel. None of the people A.Visser wrote about were children and I kept asking myself how young people would have felt and behaved in those circumstances. My mother had told me many stories of her wartime experiences when she was a teenager, so this also influenced my choice of younger characters.
Who are your favorite writers?
I love reading and have quite a few favourites. I love the novels by the American author, Anita Shreve, and her “Resistance”, set in wartime Belgium was another influence on my novel. She has a wonderful way with words, often using very few to convey situations and express emotions. I aspire to her spare style of writing.
Another favourite is Rose Tremain and I admire her ability to write in different genres and styles. To my mind, her most successful novel is “The Road Home” written from the perspective of an East European man who comes to England to find work. She wrote it in 2007 and 10 years on it resonates strongly with the fate of displaced individuals the world over.
What are you reading now?
I’ve just finished “Sweet Caress” by William Boyd, another wonderful writer. I love his sweeping narratives which follow characters throughout their lives -“Any Human Heart” is another of his books that grips the reader from beginning to end.
What’s the worst/best thing about writing a book?
There are two worst things -firstly, getting stuck and having to find the willpower to keep ploughing on. Secondly, the numerous edits that are necessary to improve the story and characters. When you think you’ve finished, you will always find something else, like the repetition of a word or a misspelling. The best thing about writing is when the writing flows and I can’t get the story down fast enough. However difficult, I always feel so much better after a decent writing session when I can see I’m making progress.
Do you have any future projects lined up?
I’ve written about 10,000 words of a follow-on book to The Hidden Village. I’ve enjoyed getting back into the writing again and developing a new story and characters. I won’t say any more than that as I haven’t quite decided the direction it will take!
I’ve given my first author talk at my local library which was really well received. Following on, I have another two talks coming up and several book groups will be reading The Hidden Village.
Out of curiosity, do you speak any Dutch? Do you have a favorite Dutch word?
I can understand Dutch quite well but never spoke it growing up. As a child, I would listen to my mother chatting to her Dutch friends but when they asked me a question in Dutch, I’d answer in English! I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn. Recently, I’ve been trying a lot harder and taken some private conversation lessons and listen as often as I can to the NOS Jeugdjournaal, which has really helped my colloquial use of the language. We’re off to Holland again soon for some cycling so I’m looking forward to practising some more.
I have a couple of favourite Dutch words which all members of my family still use, including newcomers: Lekker – to describe all manner of delicious things. Gezellig –there really is no translation in English but, to me, it sums up everything that is warm and comforting about being Dutch. (The closest word is Hygge from the Danish and I feel quite annoyed that they got there first!)
Thank you so much Imogen for your interesting answers!