Su Lum: Jack de Pagter’s gem of a book
May 8, 2002
Last week I closed the covers of Ian McEwan’s powerful novel, “Atonement,” and fell into the despondent limbo that all readers of exceptional books experience: After THAT, what could possibly follow?
I don’t know how many books I picked up and tossed aside after reading “The Shipping News,” a book I found very tough going at first, but which ended up on my all-time top-10 list. Months later I came across “A Very Long Engagement,” making me realize, once again, that there is life after every book, even “The Shipping News.”
Now, after savoring it for two weeks, I had finished “Atonement” and was forced to turn my unenthusiastic eyes to the formidable pile of “books to be read some day” on the shelf at the head of my bed, rejecting one after the other.
I won’t give anything away about “Atonement” except to say that the book was riveting and that a chunk of it involved a vivid account of the British retreat to Dunkirk early on in World War II, about which I knew next to nothing.
When I got to Jack de Pagter’s “Destination Aspen” in my book pile and saw a map that showed the Dunkirk area entirely surrounded by the enemy, I sensed that this was the book I’d been looking for.
What I didn’t know was that I’d struck gold.
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“Destination Aspen” is de Pagter’s account of his experiences during the war years, starting when he was a boy living in Holland and ending when he comes to Aspen in 1949.
I bought a copy at Jack’s book-signing at The Holland House at Christmastime last winter, when we’re all so busy it is easy for books to sink down in the pile. World War II, dreary, depressing – I’d have to psyche myself up for that.
Any trepidations I had were wrong, totally wrong. “Destination Aspen” is a wonderful, thoroughly engrossing, tender, funny, heartbreaking and life-affirming book that gives a personal viewpoint of the war from the eyes of a boy whose life was changed forever in half a decade.
The book is a straightforward, ungarnished, unvarnished narrative that puts in understandable terms how this heinous war came about, and how people drew on their capacities of ingenuity and compassion in the face of increasingly dire circumstances.
It is also a page-turner of high adventure and narrow escapes: hiding in haystacks with the Nazis feet away, crossing borders with counterfeit papers, aiding refugees, riding hundreds of miles on his bike to check on family members.
Between a lot of luck, a great facility for languages and the help of the resistance, de Pagter escaped death many times before taking his first job in Aspen as bartender at the Hotel Jerome. He built his lodge, started the Wintersköl Festival, served 30 years with Mountain Rescue and was inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame.
His luck was also our luck.
This review is late in coming, but make it a point to read Jack de Pagter’s book – it’s a gem.
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