by Helene Moszkiewiez

by Judith Cook

The books aren’t related, I picked the first one because, well, that’s a pretty good if direct title, while the second had a nice psuedo-map cover that I usually fall for anytime something like it shows up. (This explains why one of my favorite shirts of all time came from the band Unwound, with an old depiction of the Caribbean on the front and a world map on the back. I’m a sucker for cartography in the end.)

The first is a direct first person account from a Dutch resistance fighter who ended up working as a secretary in a key Gestapo office in her home country. It’s quite a chatty, passionate and striking book, and in many ways acts as the unintentional counterpart (it was published in 1985) to the overarching narrative of the war’s impact told in that decade, Maus. Readers of that will remember that a key part involves Art Spiegelman’s rage in learning that his mother’s diaries and journals had been destroyed, and that her own voice as such would never feature in the story being told. Here a woman tells her own story forthrightly, in a vivid blend of emotions — but oddly enough, perhaps the most intense is the one of life, not in the sense of looking towards a brighter day per se but in almost existential terms (if a core point could be paraphrased: I am a Jew, I am a resistance fighter, I will spy on and frustrate the Nazis, the Nazis will fall). It’s not a record of a diary and is told in obvious hindsight, but rather than some sort of sureness of the brighter day it is more that action must be taken at all costs, to simply not surrender. She expresses frustration over what she saw as the unwillingness of more Jews to take such action, but does not condemn or pity them, and is aware herself that in ways she almost lucked into — if that’s the right term — her role thanks to a friendship with an older Belgian soldier who eventually works in deep cover in the Gestapo, resulting in the secretarial job.

It would be a danger, perhaps, to speak of the personalization of an entire war, but she is not telling that and it would be strange to call it that — she was not out to destroy the entire Nazi edifice, merely to help as part of a larger process that she is open about knowing little about (she herself was not in direct contact with the British agents advising her superior). As such, her story is by turns exciting, horrifying and blunt — she is keen to pay tribute to those who deserve it and to be clear about those who deserve lasting excoriation well beyond the grave, at the same time capturing the ambivalent horror of a righteous killing — namely the death of a suspicious Gestapo higher-up at her hands — with skill. It is an account rather than a tribute or a condemnation or a seeing everything through one prism, and as such succeeds surprisingly well.

Cook in her book tries to tell another woman’s story, that of Elizabethan-era Western Irish pirate leader and noblewoman Grace o’Malley. Not knowing what to entirely expect, I encountered a popularly-inclined sketching out of someone’s life where not much information is necessarily had — more than once Cook essentially apologizes for what isn’t known, and speculates and shares stories about a character who on the one hand was a figure of some specific renown but on the other hand is seen through a glass darkly. Cook if anything is more telling of o’Malley’s milieu rather than her life itself, the tangled intertwining of clan and political loyalties of Ireland in the 16th century which must have been near impossible to resolve for many contemporaries then and is practically overwhelming now.

As such the book is interesting rather than compelling, a bit of a mission to suggest and place rather than definitively tell, though Cook herself is well aware that this is in the fact the case, that she can only do so much and no more within the space of what turns out to be 180 pages, it’s a quick little read. Might recommend it, might not…ask me at different times and I’ll probably give you different answers.