Book Review: Cruel Paradise

Speerstra, Hylke. Cruel Paradise. Translated and Abridged by Henry J. Baron. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005. 224 pages. Reviewed by Rev. Wybren H. Oord

When my father was in his early thirties, he emigrated from Friesland to Louisiana, USA. There he picked cotton for several years before he, and the two other families that immigrated to the south, moved to New Jersey to become dairy farmers.

I was only two years old when we left the Netherlands. I never understood what drove my father and mother to the United States. I grew up never knowing my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Why would you leave your whole family behind with the prospect of never seeing them again? Why would anyone leave the country in which they were born to work from sun up to sundown? Why would you settle down in a place where no one spoke your language? Yes, the United States was the land of opportunity and the great American Dream, but not at $2.00 a week.

Cruel Paradise weaves together a variety of stories about Dutch emigrants. It offers incredible insight as to why so many people left their land of birth and set sail to newer horizons around the globe. And it tells that story one family at a time. Hylke Speerstra invites readers to join him as he interviews transplanted Dutchmen in the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zeeland, and Australia. While recounting the trials and successes of these emigrants in vivid detail, Speerstra does not hold back any punches. Some families made it; others did not. Some of the stories will make you laugh, while others will fill you with tears. Every story will tell of the determination and the work ethic immigrant families had when they left the Netherlands and moved to various parts of the world. One chapter tells of the effect that different waves of emigration had upon a town, giving an entirely new perspective on the exodus of immigrants.

Dr. Henry Baron, who translated this book into the English language writes: “In one lifetime, the earth changed from a huge planet full of unknown places to a well-traveled world, and thus farewell serenades went out of style. But in the life stories of old emigrants the distances were beyond imagination. They ventured into endless space and had no idea where they landed” (p. 2).

Too often we forget that, for many of the emigrants, life would have been easier had they stayed in the Netherlands. It was for the sake of their children they sought a better life. They were determined that we would have opportunities that were not available to them in the Netherlands.

If you are an immigrant, or the child or grandchild of those who left the Netherlands to settle elsewhere, Cruel Paradise is must reading. It gives the reader an understanding of the mindset of those who left family and country behind to put down roots in a land they did not know. It will give you a new insight to the people that you thought you already knew.