A memoir of the Japanese occupation of Java.
The Way of a Boy is a gentle story of a young Dutch boy, Ernest Hillen, during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, 1942-45.
At the Battle of the Java Sea and the Battle of the Sunda Straits in February-March 1942 the Japanese navy pulverised a combined British, Dutch, Australian, and United States fleet. This paved the way for a Japanese land invasion of Java and the Dutch colonial army in Indonesia quickly surrendered to the Japanese in March 1942. Thereafter most Dutch citizens in the country were imprisoned in camps, and Ernest's story is focused on his time in these places.
Ernest, along with his mother and older brother were put in a camp for women and children - Bloemenkamp (Camp of Flowers) in Bandung, really a fenced-off section of the city, while his father was sent to a higher security mens' camp. Later the family were moved to several other places, Tjihapit, also in Bandung, and finally Kampung Makasar, in or near Jakarta.
The prisoners make valiant attempts to keep some of their culture and customs alive - a big effort is put into secretly celebrating Christmas of 1942. In later years of imprisonment one gets the impression the inmates are too worn down and weak for such things.
Some effort is made to instruct Ernest in the religion of his people, although it is not stated whether it is Calvinism or Catholicism - likely the former. Ernest seems to be non-plussed about these efforts. Jesus loves all men Ernest is told, but he finds it hard to believe that He would love the Japanese.
When Ernest's brother Jerry turns 13 he is sent to another camp, the one where his father is it turns out, because he has now become "a danger to the Japanese Empire". Later the Japanese seem to become increasingly afraid of young boys, they keep lowering the age, from 13 to 12 to 11, when a boy becomes a danger to them and has to be separated from his wailing mother.
Ernest has a best friend, Hubie, but Hubie dies of disease a few weeks before the Japanese surrender. Hubie's mother is an upper class, snobbish woman who will not talk to those of inferior status - including Ernest's mother. But when Hubie dies she whispers to Ernest that she is terribly afraid of meeting her husband again someday, because he will be so sad that Hubie is gone.
The Japanese are portrayed by Ernest as invariably bestial creatures, wilfully cruel. He cannot understand why they always yell, hit, and become apoplectically angry so easily. Do they have mothers? Do their mothers yell too? Do they yell back? Maybe they are just annoyed at having the lowly job of guarding women and children, he guesses.
Indonesians figure only marginally in the story. At the tea plantation where Ernest's father worked, pre-internment time, the groundskeeper Manang is described in some detail and affectionately. Manang believes there are spirits everywhere, in the air, mountains, and in people and animals. One animal, the family dog Leo, a fierce beast, petrifies Manang and whenever it breaks loose Manang goes missing. Ernest envies Manang for his tough, well-worn feet.
When the family are being transported by truck to Bloemenkamp Ernest catches sight of a young girl, 13 or 14, sitting beside the road, wearing a sarong and with long, wet hair. Their eyes meet, Ernest feels as if the girl is pulling him towards her with her eyes, she has an incredible warmth the feeling of which stays in Ernest's mind for many months afterwards.
Inside the camps there are "Indo" boys, half-breeds, said to be wild and rough, they like fighting, and Ernest is no match for them.
When the news gets out in the camp that the Japanese have surrendered the prisoners are urged to celebrate very quietly - outside the camp the Indonesians are in rebellion, and the newly-freed Dutch don't want to attract their attention. Later British soldiers arrive and distribute food, etc, but carefully avoid looking the ex-prisoners in the eye - they are in a pathetic, half-starved state.
Decades later, likely in the 1980's, Ernest returns to Indonesia. First he revisits Kampung Makasar, now an army garrison, and meets Haji Mohammed Nur, who had been a village official in the 1940's. The camp was known at the time as an evil place, said Nur, and some people even today are still superstitious about the entrance gate to it - many people have been killed in car/motorbike accidents there since 1945 even though there are no crossroads.
The tea plantation where he had grown up near Bandung is something of a disappointment to Ernest, he is suprised to see how his old house is in very poor repair, and does not even want to go inside.