I saw many positive reviews for The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, but held out because I don’t like books written as journals. Books written as journals rarely feel like such—some entries are so long that they’d take hours to write by hand, others contain information you wouldn’t expect someone to include (e.g., overly intricate descriptions of landscapes or the physical attributes of their friends). Hendrik Groen feels like a natural diary. There are some explanations for the reader, but no exposition dumps.
Hendrik begins his journal as an undercover report: “I am going to give the world an uncensored exposé in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.” (Loc 48) What begins as a list of gripes about his fellow “inmates” morphs into a heartwarming tale of friendship. The griping doesn’t drag down the book, since Hendrik has an amusing way of putting things:
Residents started hoarding moving boxes that very afternoon. “Old plants should not be repotted,” Mrs. Schaap kept bleating at anyone who would listen. The fact that she compares herself to a plant speaks to a self-knowledge for which I’d never given her credit. She does speak, but other than that she leads a largely vegetative existence. (Loc 1430)
To cope with the care home’s inertia and boredom, Hendrik founds the Old-But-Not-Dead Club. Each member takes a turn to plan an excursion for the group, keeping the details secret (except the date, of course). The excited anticipation around each outing is infectious. These adventures take place between occasionally painful discussions of aging, and provide much needed hope and levity. When the club visits a park:
Estimated average age of the Keukenhof visitor: over sixty-five.
No senior discounts, therefore; giving discounts would cost the park an arm and a leg. People in wheelcheers are allowed in for free, however. It wasn’t exactly advertised, but Grietje happened to know about the policy. So off Evert went to fetch a wheelchair for me, and Graeme got one for Eefje. We thought more than two wheelchairs would look suspicious. We spent the forty euros we saved on the entry fees on coffee and cake. And we took turns letting ourselves be wheeled around. (Loc 1485)
Hendrik writes quite a lot about the indignity of aging; it’s not an overly romantic look at the process. Death gets a regular mention as Hendrik ponders his own end and those of his friends. He doesn’t dwell on the painful stuff, but leaving some things unsaid expresses them clearly. His dignity, and that of his friends, is deeply important to him. When one friend is diagnosed with Alzheimers’, he helps write notes for her to keep in her pocket:
Grietje has composed, with my help, two new notes she is to carry with her at all times: “What to do if I get lost” and “What to do if I don’t remember exactly who someone is.”
Both notes start with: “Please forgive me, but I’m a bit forgetful.” (Loc 2692)
That particular chapter ends there, because there’s not much Hendrik can say after something like this. But it shows something of the book: the horror of Alzheimers’ is intercut with the compassion of Grietje’s friends as they swarm around her, ready to help however they can. As Hendrik chronicles the various infirmities of his friends, he tries to maintain hope, but keeps euthanasia in the back of his mind. That euthanasia is legal (with a whole lot of paperwork) changes the discussion around death and dying with dignity.
The mix of the funny and serious in this book is key to it working so well. Without the humor, I’d have stopped after a few months of entries, too bummed to continue. The only weakness is that a few entries take a turn into local news and politics. I suspect these asides make more sense in the book’s original language (Dutch) to its original audience, but in addition to being less intelligible to a foreign audience, they also pin the book to a specific year. I know every chapter of this book has a date at the start of it (month and day, no year), but it feels fresh and surprisingly timeless. It bugged me to see it tied to a year.
NB: This is a work of fiction; “Hendrik Groen” is both the main character’s name and author’s pen name.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) Extremely “life-affirming.” I put that in quotes, because it’s the kind of saccharine word that I don’t often use on this site. When I gave a copy to a friend, I said it was “full of gooey friendship stuff,” which is maybe a better way to put it. Even though the end of this book made me cry as hard as any Pixar movie, it’s entirely worth reading.