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Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage

Arthur Boers
Published by Eerdmans in 2023

Driving toward Denver for a brief family vacation in our light green 1967 Plymouth Fury III, I alternated with my mother as front-seat navigator. Mid-afternoon on our only allotted “going” travel day, I worried to my father that we were heading into a huge storm. My Minnesota farm boy meteorological skills clanged warnings about the ominous darkening wall building on the western horizon.

“Those aren’t clouds,” my ever-wise and ever-patient Dad told me. “That’s the Rocky Mountains!”

It was a mind-blowing, world-altering moment for a young flatlands lad. This was my first sight of a mountain range, so high it barriered the horizon, silently declaring the impossibility of travel through or beyond.

It was also a moment of insight. The parameters of my early experiences were the lens through which all existence had been filtered and interpreted. Yet there were also other paradigms and different perspectives, other ways to see the world and multiple vantage points giving insight and meaning beyond the borders of my boundaried presuppositions, significant as they were.

This is the journey of Arthur Boers in his anecdotal memoir, Shattered. The “shattering” is, first of all, recollections on broken glass – sheets that formed Dutch greenhouses near Rotterdam, panes (sometimes chipped or dropped) used by his father to build hothouses for Ontario vegetable and flower growers, the beautiful wreckage from Great Lakes foundered ships that became colorful reclaimed jewelry, and shards of smashed household items following a parent’s rage. Each experience is a portion of his life’s mosaic, indelibly scribed with tinkles and hues, cuts and dripping blood, oaths and curses, and brittle fear too often hidden behind polished panels.

But the metaphor grows, for Boers. It becomes the lens through which he understands Nazi anti-insecurity belligerence forged in the aftermath of Great War humiliation, which led to war-mongering brutish bellicose expansionism that, in turn, stomped upon Netherlandish gezelig civility in mid-20th century occupation, finally engendering post-WWII Dutch racist exploitation of Indonesia. All of this, in Boer’s mind, was justified ecclesiastically by a harsh and vindictive theology in which God ruled the world, dominees ruled churches, men ruled women, and parents ruled children. Each brittle piece of the hierarchy forced compliance upon those below, binding them into socially marginalized docility, or shattering them until there was no place for them in the smooth artificiality of constructed order.

Boers is a thirsty observer, a thoughtful interpreter, and a tremendous storyteller. It is difficult, at times, to imagine his three-year-old self remembering specific incidents (early morning dives into his parents’ bed—p. 1; the brand of cigarette packages—p. 2; the distance in blocks between home and a busy street—p. 3). Perhaps that is why his initial chapters feel spotty and somewhat disjointed. Chapter 3 is even built from random photos lingering in albums and boxes that his adult self sifts for memories and meanings. But the stories begin to congeal by chapter 7 around war, church and migration. War destroyed civility, building artificial social relationships of authoritarian domination communicated through arbitrary rules. Nazi Germans reshaped Netherlands society under a cloud of fear and suspicion. Dutch armies took back Indonesia from the Japanese, but in turn brutalized the subjected population. Arthur’s father learned rage from his own father’s explosive bitterness. Each helplessly-whipped-recipient bullied the next weakling down the line.

According to Boers, the church, which should have tempered these hostilities and nurtured graceful communities, instead fostered cover-ups of family secrets and demonic theological lies (chapter 4). It became complicit by teaching submission to a brutish God, and supporting racial domination and abuse (chapter 9). Boers would later find surprising divine grace through a visiting missionary speaker (p. 49), the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain (p. 93), following pretty young women to a neighboring United Church (p. 145), Mennonite classmates (chapter 28), Henri Nouwen (chapter 33), and a neighborhood Anglican church (p. 202). While recognizing the imperfections of each quest and each communion, Boers also found light and graciousness and spiritual enthusiasm that did not easily break, and did not seek to dominate or separate.

It was the migration that probably took the greatest toll on the home and community engendering Boers. Dutch immigrants retained meaning in a chaotic world by sustaining language, idioms and cultural practices of the old country. These are normal practices in any transitional community. But the combination of separate Christian schools and copy-cat youth organizations (Cadets instead of Boy Scouts, Calvinettes/GEMS mimicking Girl Scouts, “Young People’s”) fostered both alienation from social peers and a subtle haughtiness that “we” are better than “them”. Slowly Boers became aware that he did not fit neatly “within”, and increasingly journeyed “beyond”.

Boers has written a deeply perceptive and powerfully engaging memoir. It is an insightful commentary on the development of identity within social communities, with much that is good and nurturing, and too often more that is harmful, amplifying sinful behaviors from generation to generation of families, ethnicities and nations.

My wife is a Dutch Canadian, born to immigrant parents and raised in the same Christian Reformed denomination as Boers. I have been a lifelong part of Christian Reformed communities, including 21 years of Christian education in schools owned or supported by the Christian Reformed. Two of the Christian Reformed congregations I served as pastor were in Canada, each composed almost entirely of first- and second-generation Dutch immigrants. While I recognize many of the hurtful issues Boers brings to light so powerfully, neither I nor my wife experienced the pervasive harshness and brittleness that Boers endured. This is not to minimize Boers’ reminisces, but to acknowledge the limitations Boers himself places upon his perceptions in his later chapters.

This is a very good story, told very well. A little heavy-handed at times, perhaps, but much more overflowing with grace. Shattered, yes, but not beyond resilient hope.

Wayne Brouwer

Wayne Brouwer was nurtured by German and Dutch immigrant communities in rural Minnesota. A meandering pilgrimage has led to ordination in two denominations, pastoral leadership in five congregations in two countries, cross-cultural missionary service in two other countries, an international family, and teaching responsibilities for the past several decades at both Hope College and Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.


  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks for this review, Wayne.
    Though my own journey is not parallel to Boers’, we come from the same roots – both physical and theological. His memoir will be added to my rising pile of “to be read.”

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    I, too, appreciate this review on Boers’ memoirs. After having heard him in a podcast produced by the Henri Nouwen Society, I’ve had the book on a “wish list.” You give us a helpful, balanced review that will assist me as I read. Thanks, Wayne.