Although the action of Kindergarten takes place over only five days during the Christmas holidays of 1978, the text is intercut with so much parallel and peripherally related material that the novel resonates with significance greater than that one might expect from the story of a family Christmas celebration. Kindergarten is about childhood, home, and sanctuary; more than that, however, it is about a close-knit family circle in the context of a larger, often hostile society that seeks to invade and destroy familial bonds.
The novel begins with an excerpt from the tale “Hansel and Gretel” the episode in which Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother suggests that the children be abandoned in the forest and then immediately introduces Corrie Meeuwissen, the protagonist, as he prepares to celebrate Christmas with his younger brothers, Jo and Matthias, and their grandmother Lilli Meeuwissen. Celebration of any kind is difficult for the boys this year: Their mother is dead gunned down in a terrorist attack in Rome nine months earlier in April and their father is in the United States helping to raise money for the families of the other victims. Lilli has promised the boys “a traditional German Christmas,” an event for which she has been preparing secretly for days, and when the three boys enter her dining room for the promised treat, they are stunned by the decorations: a glittering tree, Lilli’s paintings, gifts, a spread of holiday sweets including a gingerbread house (which immediately reminds Corrie of Hansel and Gretel and the enchanted house in the forest), and hundreds of lighted candles.
During the festivities, Corrie suddenly realizes that Lilli’s generous act is not the re-creation of a childhood memory for the amusement of three lonely boys. Being an artist, she has contrived a ceremony that she, being Jewish, knows about only from books. Corrie is overwhelmed by this evidence of his grandmother’s love. He has known about his Jewish heritage (his mother was English, his father only half Jewish) for only two years; as the Christmas celebration proceeds, Corrie puzzles over the meaning of his Jewishness. During the events of the next four days, Corrie often allows his thoughts to wander as he thinks of happier times, occasionally about his mother’s death, and sometimes about being Jewish. While a considerable portion of the novel describes Corrie’s and occasionally Jo’s recollections of happy family events, a still larger portion is devoted to Corrie’s secret: He has discovered a cache of letters from German Jews to a former headmaster of Southwold School, the school now administered by Corrie’s father.
On December 24, while in the school’s music building rehearsing, Corrie succumbs to a long-suppressed curiosity and opens a small locked door in his favorite practice studio. Behind the door are boxes of letters and postcards from Jewish families in Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1939. The letters and cards beg for places for Jewish children at Southwold School, request news of children already enrolled there, and plead for more time to remit fees when the German government forbids the sending of currency out of the country. While Corrie is already fascinated by his Jewish ancestry and by the knowledge that his grandmother was a refugee from the Nazi regime, his interest in the letters is further sparked by two events. First, a week earlier, German terrorists took several dozen children hostage in Berlin, and they are still holding them; the ongoing saga of the children’s ordeal, daily reported on television, is a constant reminder of their mother’s death to Corrie and Jo. Second, in his initial foray into the files, Corrie finds a postcard from a Jewish boy of about his own age, thanking that long-ago headmaster for granting him and his younger brother a place at the school.
Many of the letters and cards are quoted in their entirety, showing the anguish of parents trying desperately to find a safe place for their children. Over the next four days, Corrie returns repeatedly to the file room to read more of the letters, stopping to conjure up faces for the people he has come to know through their pleas and their guarded descriptions of a Germany inhospitable to Jews, particularly the children. A number of parents sent photographs of their children, and as Corrie looks at their solemn faces, he is reminded of Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the dark forest, and of the Berlin schoolchildren now in their second week of captivity.
All of Corrie’s preoccupations are forced to a form of closure on December 28, his sixteenth birthday. He finishes reading the letters, and a commando raid on the Berlin school frees most of the hostage children. More important, his birthday gift from Lilli is a new painting, her first since her flight from Germany in 1939. She also reveals to the astonished boys a new collection of paintings, no longer illustrations of fairy tales but evocations of the Meeuwissen family in happier times. For the first time, Lilli shows the boys a photograph of her family, all lost in the Holocaust. Corrie recognizes the faces, immortalized as characters in Lilli’s earlier works, and he wonders about the fate of those families whose letters he has read. As the novel ends, Corrie, once again off in his thoughts, recollects the final scene of a school play for which he composed the music.
Cooke, Judy. Review in New Statesman. XCIX (June 20, 1980), p. 939.
Gunton, Sharon R., ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. XIX (1981), pp. 405-407.
Judd, Inge. Review in Library Journal. CV (June 1, 1980), p. 1328.
Locher, Frances C., ed. Contemporary Authors. CI (1981), p. 425.
Yourgrau, Barry. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXII (August 17, 1980), p. 10.