N’s opa — my father — visited recently, and after he’d spent a week with us and gone again, she asked for a Dutch book given to her a few years ago by my uncle. Now, the “oom” and the “opa” can read Dutch a lot better than I can, but N seems to enjoy hearing me struggle through, and spit out words that don’t make much sense to her. Or perhaps they do? There are certainly lots of connections between the two languages, and this book, Welterusten, kleintje, has plenty. So we bumble through as the little gnome Klaas Vaak climbs on his flying donkey, and takes his nightly trip through the land to sprinkle slaapzand over the children and bring them sweet dreams.
Welterusten, kleintje, as you might guess, means “sleep well, little one.” I don’t know if it’s a gem of a book or not, but I suspect so. It was written by Wil Huygen, and magically illustrated by Rien Poortvliet. The story ends with a lullaby every Dutch child seems to know and covet: Slaap, kindje, slaap. N says that Klaas Vaak himself, pictured above in his chair with his donkey Suzanne, reminds her of Opa, and it strikes me as funny because Klaas Vaak reminds me of my opa too. Not that he looks a thing like him.
My opa died many years ago, and as many of you know was the subject of a book I wrote with my sister, The Occupied Garden. It chronicles his and my oma’s experiences in occupied Holland, and their post-war move to Canada and a much different life. My opa had grown vegetables in Holland, and here in Canada, he grew flowers at a nursery. He had his own garden, too, with an abundance of roses, and one strange little lawn ornament that didn’t seem to suit him.
The kaboutertje, as gnomes are called in Dutch, had been given to him by neighbours who were building a pool. The only way the bulldozers and cement pourers could access the neighbours’ yard was through Opa’s, and he had given his consent, though surely the act of building a pool must have seemed oddly lavish to him, a man from a different world. After the trucking was done, the neighbours, knowing Opa was a gardener, presented him with a bearded little man wearing a red hat. And Opa was touched by the gift – by the fact that someone had given him something. It sat in his garden for years. For the rest of his life, in fact, and has since been passed down (along with the story) to a great-grandson.
So I have a soft spot for gnomes, as does N. And both of us like that this Dutch book is a bit of a mystery. It’s heartening to me that she loves reading so much that she doesn’t always need to understand the words. But we have another gnome book, too, called simply Gnomes, by Huygen and Poortvliet. This one is in English — a gnome tome that tells you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about gnomes, from the various types — there are woodland, dune, garden, house, farm and Siberbian gnomes — to their physiology to their geographical range to their rituals of courtship, marriage and family. Gnomes are tiny but seven times as strong as man, and totally self-sufficient. They weave and blow glass and work wood and pot pots and even knit underwear, socks, stockings, gloves and scarves out of doe hair. They use gold and silver needles to treat wounded animals with acupuncture techniques they have practiced for thousands of years. They make flutes from hollowed rabbit bones and sing with thrushes and nightingales.
Lavishly illustrated by Poortvliet, with text by his physician friend and fellow Dutchman Huygen, Gnomes was first published in 1977 and became a huge international success. Huygen’s scientific background comes through beautifully in the serious-but-hilarious prose. Here’s an example:
“The cap deserves an extra explanation. It is made of felt and is solid from its tip to the top of the head…. The gnome never removes it except in darkness before going to bed and probably (although we have not seen this ourselves) when taking a bath. A gnome without a cap is not a gnome, and he knows it.”
Poortvliet was a well-regarded Dutch artist, known not only for his gnome images but for his skilled illustrations of animals. This made him controversial too — he was an avid hunter, hence his intricate knowledge of the gnomes’ forest world with its nuts and berries and pinecones. It’s the world of the hunter, or jager, too.