During the months when a baby is on the way, it’s often a time to think about one’s place in the bigger picture. For Marjolijn van Heemstra—the narrator of In Search of a Name, as well as its author—it’s a time look more closely at the family legend about a great uncle who heroically killed a Nazi collaborator in 1946 with a bomb disguised as a holiday package.
At least, that’s the story that’s worked its way through her family like a game of Telephone. It’s understandable—who wouldn’t want a hero in the family? Before getting pregnant, van Heemstra even promised her grandmother that she would name her future son after this man. But now with a son actually on the way, van Heemstra is looking more closely into the truth of this family legend.
Although this is not a traditional whodunit, fans of mystery and true crime may enjoy van Heemstra’s dogged investigation. Amid prenatal appointments and decorating a nursery, she sorts through government records and tracks down elders who knew her great uncle. His heroism is more complicated than she was led to believe—and so, too, are her feelings about impending motherhood.
Translated from Dutch, In Search of a Name is a unique narrative, blending what appears to be historically accurate accounts of the Dutch Resistance during World War II with elements of fabulism. The book is billed as a novel, but it’s never quite clear how much of van Heemstra’s personal story is true, and that gets a bit frustrating. Nevertheless, World War II and its aftermath can feel far removed from our modern-day concerns, and van Heemstra deftly shows how ripples of this famous Sinterklaas bombing reverberate to this day. The reader is left with a number of moral quandaries: What separates a proud vigilante from a dangerous terrorist? Are the deaths of innocents as “collateral damage” ever justified? Can any of us ever speculate on how we would act in a different historical moment?