THOROUGH RESEARCH and vivid writing can pay rich rewards, and readers will find themselves absorbed by this story of the Spanish Inquisition in 16th-century Netherlands. The rebellion of the Calvinist Dutch against their Catholic king, Philip II of Spain, is seen through the eyes of the van Cleefs, a well-to-do family whose complaisant existence is destroyed by religious persecution. The father is imprisoned and hanged, the mother goes mad, and the two teen-agers, Jan and Hannecke, are forced to survive on their own.
Like flotsam and jetsam, they are tossed about by the swirling forces of history. Hannecke is raped by a Spanish soldier and forced to leave her native city of Antwerp. Jan goes to live with a disreputable uncle and becomes a member of the Sea Beggars, a force of Dutch pirate ships that prey upon Spanish galleons bearing gold to their troops stationed in Europe. Fate ultimately brings brother and sister together in the Dutch city of Brill where the Sea Beggars and townspeople join forces to confront a powerful battalion of Spanish soldiers.
Holland has a loving eye for just the right kind of detail, be it clothing or furniture or guns, and she can write an action scene that packs a wallop. The sea battles, pitting the puny force of Dutchmen against the formidable strength of the Spanish armada, will transport readers right back onto those bloody decks with cannonballs whizzing over their heads. Yet, the sex, slaughter, swash and buckle are balanced by a stark realism and psychological insight into characters that portray, with frightening clarity, what it must be like to live through a holocaust.
The only drawbacks to this book are a slow beginning and the author's unfortunate tendency to dilute the reality she has so carefully created by having her fictional characters meet with such real historical personages as Elizabeth, queen of England, and William, prince of Orange. These fateful encounters stretched even my willing credulity. The Sea Beggars is at its best as the story of ordinary people caught in political and historical forces that are far beyond their control.