Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and WWII by Robert Matzen

When I saw Dutch Girl on NetGalley, a book about Audrey Hepburn’s years in Holland/the Netherlands during WWII, I was intrigued by the idea of a different perspective on the war, and on Audrey Hepburn. Having read one or two biographies on her before, I knew the war years are generally skimmed over: born in Belgium, moved to Holland, danced ballet, lived in Velp during the war…The reason for that is there just isn’t that much information available, especially since Hepburn herself hardly ever talked about the war. I had hoped Robert Matzen had been able to find new sources of information, especially since he had gotten the blessing of Hepburn’s sons, but that was not the case.

I was looking to get a new perspective on Audrey Hepburn; if the first years of a person are formative, then an experience of having grown up during WWII in the middle of the fighting must have molded Audrey Hepburn in the person she was. The war certainly formed her, and while Dutch Girl certainly makes a valiant effort, this book does not nearly enough to show us how and why.

I enjoyed reading this book, but not as a biography on Audrey Hepburn, but as a history of what life was like during WWII in occupied Holland. The book starts of well, detailing the life of her mother and father and their dealings with the Nazis during the thirties, but as the story moves along it seems details and information becomes less and less available and the author has to rely on, not so much Audrey Hepburn’s story, as the lives of the people around her and the events happening in the war.

There just isn’t that much information available on this subject, as the author says himself, and some of the embellishments make the book come across as creative nonfiction in certain parts (also acknowledged in the notes by the author that certain thoughts and actions ascribed to Hepburn in the book are what he assumes to be the case based on his research). Hepburn never wrote a diary like Anne Frank did, another major character in the book and an indirect influence on Hepburn’s life.

There is quite a bit of repetition and pointless filler, with a few crumbs of Audrey Hepburn thrown in which does make the book worthwhile. The story of her uncle drives home the ruthlessness of the Nazis, while the small acts of kindness such as Hepburn helping out at the hospital or teaching ballet to the local children, show the resilient spirit of the Dutch.

Parts of the story come across as contrived, and the beginning of each new chapter starts with a description of Hepburn’s later life and how it seems the war influenced her at that point. This doesn’t really work for me, as there is never any real, hard evidence that was how Hepburn really felt. She hardly ever talked about the war, and she was an intensely private person. One other thing which consistently interrupted the flow of the story: the use of Dutch words where it was totally unnecessary. I understand Dutch and it bothered me, so I can only imagine not knowing the language, how annoying it must be to read sentences such as: “the assembled gijzelaars, or hostages,” and “there was a hint of autumn – herfst as the Dutch called it.”

All in all a good read, as long as you start reading with the knowledge that you won’t learn as much about Audrey Hepburn as the title makes you think you will.


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