North Dakota writer Jill Kandel's second memoir is bifurcated. The first half explores the early years of her marriage to a Dutch agronomist named Johan. For 20 years, the two live in the Netherlands, Zambia, Indonesia and England before settling in the United States. The book's second half explores the death of her father-in-law. What knits the two halves together are Kandel's musings on living in and with unfamiliar cultures.
Although her husband looks like her — both are tall, blond and blue-eyed — he grew up with different customs, language and history, and she finds it perplexingly difficult to assimilate. It's also unclear which barriers are culturally specific to Dutch people, and which are specific to Johan's family. His father, Isaak, sets the tone — a cold, regimented man who keeps to an unwavering schedule. (How dare she suggest having tea at 3 p.m.? Tea is at 4 p.m.)
While the first half of the memoir is luminous, the second half is more complicated. After the family settles in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Johan receives word that Izaak is dying. He flies home to find that his father is in excellent health but has made an appointment for euthanasia, which is legal in the Netherlands. He dies just two months before the wedding of his only daughter.
Kandel finds herself unable to accept his decision and is consumed with trying to understand it. She digs into Izaak's life and the war years, trying to get to the bottom of why Izaak — healthy and independent — would decide to end his life.
These chapters are a painful read; it's clear to the reader that she won't find answers. Izaak was never one to explain himself — even his letters to his grandchildren, she says, read like textbooks, revealing nothing. She tries gamely, for years, to collect letters, anecdotes and photos that will help her understand what led to his decision. At times her prose is nearly frantic — lists, sentence fragments, imaginary conversations.
In the end, she is able to create a fuller image of him as a person. She has a grasp on the horrors he endured during the war. But Izaak's decision to die remains frustratingly out of reach.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.
The Clean Daughter
By: Jill Kandel.
Publisher: North Dakota State University Press, 341 pages, $32.95.