The Bookcase: Saartje Tadema by Thea Beckman

Saartje Tadema by Thea Beckman is a Dutch children’s book and is part of childhood nostalgia for me. The title character Saartje enters the Amsterdam’s Burgerweeshuis (Amsterdam’s Civil Orphanage) at the start of the novel which is set in the 18th century. Saartje is an independent girl and struggles to fit herself into the rigid life of the orphanage.

Through Saartje, Beckman portrays life in the 18th-century Amsterdam orphanage convincingly. Beckman’s books are full of lively history and nurtured my passion for the topic since I was young. It was through Beckman’s books that I became acquainted with the Hundred Years’ War and the role of Bertrand du Guesclin in particular.

Saartje Tadema enters the orphanage age seven together with her older brother Dirk. Her younger brother is fostered out until he is four and old enough to join them. Saartje and Dirk are quickly separated as Saartje is to go the children’s house while Dirk joins the boys’ house. The children are washed and dressed in orphan clothing and are immediately thrust into the regularity of orphanage life.

Although Saartje is pleased to hear that she can attend school and learn, she is quickly disillusioned with the quality of the lessons. Her inquisitive nature gets her in trouble often and after being slighted in her attempts to learn once again, she resolves to get rid of her corrupt schoolteacher. Saartje is one of the brightest students and succeeds in the Regents’ starting an investigation. Her teacher is replaced and Saartje is able to continue her passion for learning. She is still too independent to fit in well and Beckman writes: how lonely can an orphan get in a house filled with orphans?

Saartje’s story is interspersed with Dirk’s. He is more accepting of life and happy to accept the opportunities and limitations that are offered. The orphanage allows him to become a ship builder like his father was and to carve out a life for himself in Amsterdam when he is grown. He quickly establishes a friendship with Klaas, a fellow orphan.

Saartje’s fire and rebellion contrast with Dirk’s acceptance but both are offered without judgement. Their different experiences allow Beckman to show orphanage life in its various facets and paint a more intriguing and interesting story.

The Amsterdam Museum is located in the former orphanage buildings and features a small exhibition for children focused on its former orphanage life. On a Saturday in January, I finally went to see the exhibition.

At the entrance of the museum, you get a red bracelet. By holding the bracelet against the corresponding red symbols, you gain entrance to the orphanage and listen to the story of a 17th-century orphan boy. This is truly a children’s museum and they are allowed to touch everything. You start with the porter, move through the kitchen, school and sleeping dorms. You can take a picture of yourself dressed in orphan clothing.

It’s a wonderful interactive museum for children from age 4 till about 11. (And I think their parents would appreciate it too.)

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