Ten-year-old Elly Verkest is a first-generation Canadian born after the Second World War. Her father, Gaston, is Belgian and her mother, Mina, is Dutch. Growing up in Southern Ontario, in a small town filled with Dutch and Belgians, she is carving out her own unique Canadian identity.
Her father raises pigeons and often travels back to Belgium for business. But he doesn’t return from one of his trips. As Elly and Mina struggle to build a new life without him, their relationship becomes strained and they grow apart. As a young adult, Elly decides to travel to Belgium in search of her father, and is shocked at what she discovers.
Elly returns to Canada, pregnant by a man she met while in Antwerp. When her daughter Linda is grown up, she develops a close relationship with Mina, much to the dismay of her mother. And as this relationship develops, the family secrets spill out.
Fire and Air, by Erik Vlaminck and translated by Paul Vincent, is a novel about a family that flees their old lives for a new ones in Canada, only to find that they can never fully leave the past behind.
I picked this book up for personal reasons, I’m the child of Dutch immigrants who came to Ontario as children after the Second World War. I was hoping to see some of my life reflected in this book and I wasn’t disappointed. Vlaminck excellently captures the life of Dutch immigrants as well as their future generations.
I found this story very compelling right from the start. Early on, Vlaminck crafts the story of a family that from the outside seem like your average family, but underneath are going through troubles. There is great strength to this and I was hooked on the family dynamic right away. As the story went on, especially when Elly travelled to Belgium, it wasn’t as strong for me, but it definitely comes into its own again when Elly returns to Canada and as her daughter grows up.
I haven’t come across the story of the Dutch and Belgians in Southern Ontario in a novel before (let me know in the comments if you have) so I was thrilled to find this book. But you don’t have to be from those countries to enjoy the book. The stories of immigrants in Canada are all of our stories and it’s great to see these voices added to the mix.