Mieke Eerken’s family is in the unique position of being caught in strangely opposing positions during World War II. Her father and his family were interned by the Imperial Japanese Army on the island of Java for almost the entire war. Her maternal grandparents were members of the National Socialist Party of the Netherlands. In All Ships Follow Me, Eerkens tells her family stories and shares her anxieties, concerns, and questions about her heritage as the child of a colonialist and the granddaughter of a collaborator.
The first third of All Ships Follow Me follows Eerkens and her father, Sjef Eerkens, on a trip to Java so that they can both see the places Sjef lived. Eerkens gives a capsule history of her father’s life up until the Japanese invasion in 1942. She then uses her father’s memories and documents from other internees to recreate the three years her father was a prisoner. Conditions were brutal; the internees were treated so badly that some of the Japanese officers at the Javanese camps were convicted later of war crimes. But even though the years from 1942-1945 were so pivotal in her father life and the lives of other Dutch settlers in what is now Indonesia, there are few remembrances of the Dutch dead.
In the middle third of the book, Eerkens shares her mother’s history. Her mother, Else, was born on the eve of World War II, so she has few memories of the war itself. Eerkens has to recreate the past by interviewing her aunts and uncles, and by taking a dive into the Dutch Archives to see her grandfather and grandmother’s trial documents. Else does remember the terrible shunning she and her family received after the war. When the war ended, there was an eruption of vengeance by those Dutch people who weren’t collaborators. Women who slept with Germans had their heads shaved. Children were taken away. Property was seized. Even now, people with collaborators in their families keep silent.
In the last third of All Ships Follow Me (the title recalls a quote famous to all Dutch people: the words of Admiral Karel Doorman, who went down with his ship during the Battle of the Java Sea), Eerkens turns to the legacy of her parents trials. Her parents are hoarders. They all have troubled relationships to food. Else still tries to keep a low profile and seeks affection. Sjef barges ahead in any situation, refusing to admit any wrong. Eerkens also touches on epigenetics, a developing science that has shown that severe trauma can be passed down to later generations. Even though World War II ended 74 years ago, it is still very much ingrained in the Eerkens clan.
It’s clear by the end of this book that Eerkens is still working her way through what all this means for herself. The last third is less focused, packed with questions about how to resolve her colonialist and collaborationist guilt, her frustration with and affection for her parents, how suffering should be memorialized, how to deal with her lack of a true home and food issues, and much more. Some readers may be frustrated by all this questioning, but I found it very human. Anyone who claimed to have answers to the kinds of questions Eerkens is asking is either a liar or very shallow.