Revisiting The Occupied Garden

The paperback is out!

The day has arrived! After much hard work the brand new, revised paperback version of The Occupied Garden has been released! Tracy and I are pleased to present it with a beautiful new cover that incorporates a photograph taken by our Dad, and that we feel truly captures the essence of the story. We’re also excited to share that the new version includes maps of Leidschendam, hand drawn by our Aunt Rige, as well as detailed maps created by my friend, Marcel Fortin, plotting sites in the story that are further afield. Please feel free to share the news far and wide!

Digging Up Stories

A family history presentation in Deep River, ON

Tracy’s husband’s ancestor, Polish immigrant Simon Kasaboski, will feature in our talk. This image shows Simon at age 100 in Renfrew, Ontario.

Happy to be traveling to my hometown of Deep River this coming week, where I’ll be doing a presentation with sister and co-author Tracy. What with COVID wreaking havoc, it’s been a long time since we’ve had the chance to talk to an audience about our books and our love of weaving social history with family history. The event is part of a larger program called “Not Born From a Virgin Forest,” which aims to explore the history of the Deep River area before the nuclear research plant moved in in the 1940s. Here’s a description of our event, which takes place at the Deep River Public Library on March 17:

Sisters Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski are the co-authors of two highly acclaimed social histories told in the form of family memoir. The sisters will discuss the nuts and bolts of researching their family’s past, and share the possibilities for local history research using specific examples from the Ottawa Valley long before the town of Deep River came into existence.

This discussion will appeal to anyone interested in family and local history, and will  demonstrate how to look behind the dry facts for a glimpse into the real lives of people long gone.

Free Program, no registration. This event is part of the project: “Not Born From a Virgin Forest: Deep River & Area’s Earliest History” in partnership with the Laurentian Hills Public Library and the School House Museum.

Funded by the Government of Canada’s New Horizons for Seniors Program.

The Occupied Garden: a brand new edition

“It is astonishing that the human spirit is so resilient…” ~ Quill & Quire

Click to buy!

Fifteen years after its original release, my sister/co-author Tracy Kasaboski and I are delighted to present our very own new edition of The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland. The book was published to enormous critical acclaim in 2008, and we still hear from readers who are moved by this intimate account of an ordinary family living under occupation in WW2. The e-book is ready now and can be read on any device (smartphone, tablet or computer) with the free Kindle app. The paperback – unique for its inclusion of hand-drawn maps of the town where our family lived – is coming very soon.

Here’s a description of the story from the back jacket:

Set against the great tapestry of the Second World War, The Occupied Garden is the haunting and inspiring story of a young family’s struggle to survive the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Gerrit is a market gardener, and he and his wife Cor do their best to navigate the war years: a harrowing period of intimidation, disappearances, starvation and bombings. After liberation, the family immigrates to Canada, rarely speaking of the tumultuous years that changed their lives forever.

Long after Cor and Gerrit’s deaths, their granddaughters grew curious about those experiences, and using letters, photographs, documents and interviews, began to explore that fascinating and horrible time. The result is this book: a meticulously stitched tale, and an intimate re-telling of an ordinary family’s courage and resilience.

I’ll post again when the paperback is ready. Until then, here are a couple of excellent reviews that commend our ability to tell this story, and make us proud of our connection to the people who lived it:

“The authors interpret so harmoniously, are so guided by respect and common sense, that these reconstructed lives just hum with authenticity.” Read Ernest Hillen’s Globe and Mail review of The Occupied Garden here.

“This is intimate history: the writers recover not only the facts, but the tastes, smells, and lived experiences of events that today almost defy belief. … It is astonishing that the human spirit is so resilient.” Read Maureen Garvie’s Quill & Quire review of The Occupied Garden here.


The Wordless Art of George A. Walker

A wood block of Mary Pickford sits on George Walker’s press, ready for printing

It’s been a long time since I posted. In part, I’ve just been busily working on my new book, but to be honest I’ve also been a bit dejected — I haven’t been able to find out anything more about the mystery baby I was researching late last year, though I still haven’t given up that more information will surface. I often wonder what makes me so obsessed with the past, and finding clues to old mysteries that, for many people, just don’t matter anymore. But I’m overjoyed when I find kindred spirits (like my sister and co-author, and so many of the readers here) who share the same curiosity. I also love to learn about other approaches to investigating the past, and over the last many months I’ve had a close-up view, since my husband Jeff Winch has just finished his documentary Woodwriter: The Wordless Art of George A. Walker. It’s about a book artist and wood engraver who makes “wordless biographies” about such fascinating subjects as Tom Thomson, Pierre Trudeau, and Leonard Cohen. His latest chronicles the life of silent screen star Mary Pickford.

Some of George’s Mary Pickford blocks

I think Jeff and I both fell a little bit in love with Mary via George, and she makes numerous appearances in Woodwriter, lighting up the screen each time with her funny facial expressions and her ability to say so much without talking. I guess that’s why she’s such a perfect subject for George’s books — a muse, in a way. Being behind the scenes during the making of Woodwriter has been like being in a little chain of creators inspired by creators: me watching Jeff film George make a book about Mary making films!

Jeff, left, and George on set in George’s studio

But the film is about more than Mary Pickford and George’s other subjects. In my mind, it’s really a film about creativity. It follows George through his process, starting with a blank wood block and ending with a gorgeous hand-made book. Throughout the film we see his craft close up: the old-fashioned tools he uses for engraving, and the hand-fed, Vandercook Press that dominates his charming back-yard studio. But we also hear George’s thoughts about his work — what moves him, why he chooses certain subjects, what he loves about the black-and-white form and about books and art and history. Living with the filmmaker, I had the added luxury of watching Jeff’s process as he captured George’s work, using “rotoscoping” to make footage of George look like his engravings; and through tricks of technology, sending George back in time to be a character in Mary Pickford’s films.

George engraving: a rotoscoping still from Woodwriter

Though my own process is so different from Jeff’s and George’s, for me the film underscores the beauty of creating, and the power of reaching back in time to tell stories. As Jeff says in his description of the film, “the past and present never stop talking to each other – even if it’s without words.”

I’ll post again whenever there are screenings for the film. For now, you can visit the Woodwriter site and watch the trailer below:

A 1950s winter: new Canadians

Here in Toronto, we’ve gone into lockdown again, and may or may not emerge before Christmas. The news of so many small businesses being hit hard is worrisome, to say the least. But it’s a necessary thing that we stay home to slow the spread of this awful virus.

If you’re thinking of giving books for Christmas, many small independent bookstores have done an amazing job getting set up for online sales or curbside pick-up. We hope you’ll support them, and think of our books too, for those lovers of history and family history who might be on your list.

In keeping the snowfall we received yesterday, here is a little gallery of wintry family photos featuring “characters” from our first book, The Occupied Garden. These images show our dad’s family in 1951, the year they first came to Canada from the Netherlands to start again after the Second World War. To me they capture the excitement the children felt about their new world — well, the boys, anyway — and how different it all was for them compared to where they’d come from. I wish the pictures were in colour, for Opa looks particularly stylish, and Oma’s “swing coat” was apparently bright green, sewn by a family friend. I think now how brave they were to have left everything they knew, and all of their family and friends. Their first stay with a cruel dairy farmer near Aylmer, Ontario, was disastrous, but they got themselves out of that horrible situation and persevered — something they’d become quite good at during war, and for which my sisters and I will always be grateful.

Gerrit and Cornelia den Hartog on board the Volendam in March 1951.
With the children on the Volendam. From left, Rokus, Gerry, Niek, our dad Koos, and in back, Rige. March 1951.
Our dad, Koos, our grandparents, Gerrit and Cornelia, then dad’s brothers Gerry, Niek and Rokus. A dapper lot! Port Burwell, Ontario, 1951.
Niek chopping wood. Port Burwell, 1951.
Gathering at the water pump. Niek in fine form with a rifle, and our dad Koos, foreground, wearing an adolescent oh-brother expression? Port Burwell, 1951.
More woodcutting, Port Burwell, 1951.
Niek with a pig, and his mother Cornelia in the background. New territory for a gardener’s family.
Waiting for letters from home? Rokus, Rige, mother Cornelia, our dad Koos, Niek, and Gerry with a grin and a snowball. Port Burwell, 1951.
Wintry day, Port Burwell, 1951.
A similar scene in the Netherlands. One of my favourite photos by my dad, Jim “Koos” den Hartog.

Zoom presentation: Wellington Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society

Tuesday, November 24, 2020: Via Zoom, Kristen will be delivering the presentation Digging Up Stories for the Wellington County Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. Start time 7 p.m. From the branch’s website:

“Join us as Kristen den Hartog explores the fascinating resources she and her sister/co-author Tracy Kasaboski used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish: A Genealogical Journey. The book begins in the slums of Victorian London and follows the authors’ family for nearly a century, ending in London, Ontario, in the 1930s. Kristen will give specific examples of where they found ancestors ‘wandering insane,’ charged with crimes, dying in workhouses, and fighting in the First World War. She’ll also discuss the family archive, and talk about how personal resources were useful for building both The Cowkeeper’s Wish and the sisters’ first collaboration, The Occupied Garden, which chronicles the lives of their father’s family in the Netherlands in WW2.”

The meeting is open to the public but guests will need to register ahead of time. Please see the link above for more details.

South Africa, Australia, and The Cowkeeper’s Wish

Zebras … about whom more later!

It’s been quite some time since we’ve posted. Tracy and I were lucky enough to travel extensively in South Africa this summer, and since then we’ve been back at home and busy moving new projects along. But we have not forgotten the blog, and will return with some fascinating stories in a very short time.

In the meanwhile, I wanted to share a nice little mention of The Cowkeeper’s Wish that appeared earlier this month on the Queensland Genealogical Society’s blog. How lovely to think that our family story is traveling the world. It just shows how widely family history can resonate, and how it can be social history as well.

The book was mentioned as one of the blogger’s current top five go-to books for genealogy. “A compelling tale. … The book was written by two sisters who delved into their family’s past with little more than a collection of yellowed photographs and a basic family tree – much like what the rest of us have when we begin our genealogical journey. The book is exceptionally well referenced … a very good read.”

Those interested in the subject might like a peek at the other four picks as well: visit “What’s in my genealogy library.”

See you here again very soon!


Book Review: The Cowkeeper’s Wish

Princes, Paupers, Pilgrims & Pioneers

What would you give up and how far would you go to make a better life for yourself? Would you pack up what little you had and leave your loved ones and your rural homeland to seek your fortune in the big city? Would you walk 250 miles over mountains and moors while driving a herd of cattle to forge a new destiny? Just what would you do?

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Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto branch

I’m happy to be visiting the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society next week, and speaking about some of the resources we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Here’s a description of the event from the group’s website. The event is free and open to the public. I hope you’ll join us!
May 27, 2019 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Lansing United Church
Beecroft Rd & Poyntz Ave
Toronto, ON M2N 1K4
Free. Visitors welcome.
The Cowkeeper's Wish @ Lansing United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada

Speaker: Kristen den Hartog
Our speaker will be exploring the fascinating resources she and her sister/co-author used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish: A Genealogical Journey. Part family memoir, part social history, the book follows the authors’ working-class family from the slums of Victorian London to 1930s Canada. Kristen will give specific examples of where they found ancestors “wandering insane,” charged with crimes, dying in workhouses and asylums, and fighting in the First World War. She’ll also discuss the family archive, and the thrill of weaving intimate family lore with the bigger events of history.

Kristen den Hartog is the author of four novels, including And Me Among Them, shortlisted for the Trillium Award, and The Perpetual Ending, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She and her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, have collaborated on two family memoirs: The Occupied Garden, about their father’s family in WW2 Holland, and most recently The Cowkeeper’s Wish. They blog about eclectic offshoots from their genealogical journey at Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

NOTEThe Toronto Branch Annual General Meeting will precede this presentation.