Kingston author highlights the struggles of Dutch immigrants in the 1950s

*This article was originally published on Kingstonist. Thank you to author Gesina Laird-Buchanan for providing this book free of charge to facilitate this article.*

Anneke – The Immigrants follows the Verbeek family as they emigrate from post-war Holland to Canada. Anneke, the youngest daughter of the Dutch family at 10 years old, is convinced they are heading into the ‘Wild West,’ complete with horses for everyone.

After a long, rough ship journey across the Atlantic, the family finally lands in Quebec and makes their way by train to the Kingston area and ultimately settles in Mill Creek, near family who moved there a year prior. Needless to say, Anneke is distressed to find that life in Ontario in the 1950s is not the Wild West she’d pictured.

The Verbeek family struggles with both language and culture in their new home. As the three children grow, the void between Dutch parents and Canadian children gets wider and leads to some familial unrest.

Anneke – The Immigrants, published in 2017, spotlights a common immigration practice that still takes place today. A large influx of European families left everything they knew in post-war Europe to start over in Canada, where, they were told, things were “better” and “safer.” And while that was the case a lot of times, many of these families left their entire history behind in hopes of giving their children a better life.

In an interview, author Gesina Laird-Buchanan shared that her family, like Anneke’s, came to Canada as part of the large influx of Dutch immigrants in the 50s.

“My parents had lived under the Nazi jackboot for five years, and my Dad in particular was keen for the wide open spaces of Canada. We sailed from Rotterdam, eventually landed in Quebec City, then travelled by train to Kingston,” she explained.

“Things were very different in the 50s for newcomers to Canada who didn’t speak English. My character Anneke found herself suddenly plunked into a classroom where she could see the teacher moving her mouth, without a word coming out that was intelligible to Anneke… rather like in a Snoopy cartoon,” she illustrated.

“Today, there is ESL [English as a Second Language class] in the schools, and, when my daughter recently welcomed a Ukrainian refugee into her home, I was amazed to discover how they communicated by way of their phones. Svetlana spoke into her phone in Ukrainian, and, miraculously, her words came out in English.”

Laird-Buchanan went on to share another “then and now” contrast of the book’s content: “Today, there is a tremendous need for affordable housing. In the fifties it was different, but was it better, or worse?” she mused.

“In order to write this book, I recorded the stories of Dutch immigrants, many already very elderly. One family recalls being sponsored by a farmer who was to provide them with a house; instead, they found themselves living in a converted chicken coop. It does seem regulations weren’t quite as strict then.”

The Verbeeks do, indeed, struggle with not only housing, but also with the very different weather and cultural patterns here in Canada. Of course, they’re not prepared for their first winter in a house with no insulation. They don’t speak the language and so cannot easily ask for support from neighbours. And how they used to live and run their day-to-day lives in Amsterdam looks odd in this Canadian community.

The children cope more quickly, making friends, learning the language, and adapting to Canadian culture.

“As a teenager, Anneke is steeped in the culture of Marilyn Monroe, goes out in cars with boys, and tells her mother haughtily, ‘They do things differently here!’,” Laird-Buchanan said about her young protagonist.

This is truly Anneke’s story, and I won’t give away the ending.

When asked how she decided to tell this story, Laird-Buchanan said narrating through the eyes of a child just felt right.

“In writing this book, I was inspired to recreate the Dutch immigrant experience of the fifties as seen through the eyes of a child. How did these kids integrate into their new life, and what did it mean for their relationship with their ´old country’ parents?” she said.

As to how she decided to get started writing this book, Laird-Buchanan, like Lyn McCauley, author of Early Release, said a writing group helped her get the ball rolling.

“I was inspired to actually get cracking and start writing (although I’d thought about it for some time) when Judy Steed, who wrote for the Toronto Star at that time, wanted to start a writer’s group because she was working on a novel herself, and wanted to get feedback. Since then, I’ve participated in groups both in Napanee and Kingston. I found that meeting with a group regularly and reading the latest bit I’d written helped provide the discipline to keep at it no matter what else was happening in my life,” she explained.

Doug Eadie takes a peek at Anneke – The Immigrants at the book launch event at the Window Art Gallery in November 2017. Submitted photo.

For those interested in historical fiction and post-war immigration stories, Anneke – The Immigrants is available to purchase locally at Novel Idea. Laird-Buchanan has authored a second book following Anneke into young adulthood. Stay tuned to this series for a review of that book, as well.

“I thought the Anneke story was an important story to tell, because today, the adults who came in the fifties have largely passed away, and the children have integrated and lost their first language,” Laird-Buchanan concluded.

“This is a fictional book, yet I see it as a historical record. Who were these people? What challenges did they face?”

Laird-Buchanan studied art history at Queen’s University and now lives in a historic limestone house in Napanee. See her artistic creations on her website.


Jessica Foley is a freelance writer and content editor, the Assistant Editor and Lead Content Writer at Kingstonist, and is a passionate reader. When time allows, she reads books written by local authors and offers readers her own take on a book review, with an overview of the storyline, some insights from the local authors, and her thoughts on what she’s just read. To submit ideas on local books/authors for Jessica to consider, email her at jessica.foley@kingstonist.com.

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