Hilda Van Stockum


by Jean Ann Sharpe, 2006  (written while the author was still living)

            HILDA VAN STOCKUM has always been fascinated with light. Her earliest memory is the glory of a Christmas tree aglow with candles. She also remembers being enthralled with the nightly lighting of the oil lamps. Later as a teenager and new art student, she was ushered into the challenge of capturing light upon the canvas— its effect on the skin tones of models or upon a pewter pot. She says, "It is light that creates beauty in nature. Without light we can't see, and all form is lost, whereas the most common and despised objects can be made beautiful by the light that plays on them. You don't have to paint heroic scenes or idealized goddesses ... a common cracked cup can be beautiful." This truth is reflected in the stories for children, in the acclaimed paintings and in the domestic life of this artist, author, wife and mother. Her own commitment to Christian reality shines through the work of her hands. Shedding light upon ordinary things, she depicts life at its sanest and most normal. There is need of such good sense in our world today.

            Hilda van Stockum was born in Rotterdam on February 8,1908, the eldest of three children. One of her earliest memories is of her father, an officer in the Royal Dutch Navy, fixing her a little hammock on board the ship carrying the young family home from the East Indies where they had lived for over a year. This exotic beginning settled down to happy country life in Holland for the next few years. She was taught at home until the age of 10 and finally going to school was the same treat for her as the one she describes in Pegeen. Hilda's mother's family was large and lively while her father's was more staid, with fewer grandchildren to compete for the elders' attention. From one side Hilda drank deeply from the wealth of personalities and fun; from the other she was introduced into the serious world of good art— both sides liberally contributing to the development of the writer/artist. When she was 16 her family moved to Ireland and she was initiated more formally into the world of art by attending the School of Art in Kildare street, Dublin. Later she was accepted into the Dutch Academy in Amsterdam.

            It was on this return to Holland that she first read G.K. Chesterton. His brisk intellect and spiritual acuity came at a crucial time for the young artist raised in an agnostic  environment; it fanned to flame the spark of spiritual perception already alight within her. A short time later when once again back in Ireland, Hilda immersed herself in the Montessori teaching method. This training gave form to her intuitive sense of justice; a justice which sees and treats each child as a person in his own right. These two influences contributed to the quietly developing spiritual frame-work upon which her future life and work would hang.

            Because Hilda's mother was part Irish, Hilda had learned English while very young. Later, after the advent of two brothers and ac-companying Dutch nurses, only Dutch was spoken at home until the move to Ireland. Hilda attributes her aptitude for English to those early years. Her grasp of English is remarkable and one can easily forget that it is not her mother tongue. Her facility for written detail she ascribes to the many letters she wrote to her mother while apart. After her marriage to Ervin (Spike) Marlin in 1932, this preparation and her memories of her former skating days in Holland led to the writing of her first book A Day on Skates. From the beginning, both personal relationships and a vivid sense of "place" have been important motivations for Hilda's writings.

            A Day on Skates, published by Harper Brothers, was included in the running for the 1935 Newbery Medal Award. It has been surmised that the book, with its full color paintings, would have better competed for the Caldecott Award— however, this competition for picture books was not begun until 1938. She has humorously related that she was hurt at first, after all her training in art, that people liked her story even better than her pictures. Nevertheless, it was the training in art which made the way for her innate storytelling gift to come to the fore—and which gave the official writing and illustrating career of Hilda van Stockum such a happy start.

            Hilda's next books published under The Viking Press' editor, May Massee, The Cottage at Bantry Bay (1938), its two companion volumes Francie on the Run (1939) and Pegeen (1941), Kersti and St. Nicholas (1940), Andries (1942) and Gerrit and the Organ (1943) each draw upon her experiences in Holland and in Ireland. It isn't until the publishing of The Mitchells in 1945 that her own children and life in America are introduced (though her children served as models for the antics and the illustrations of earlier books—particularly in Andries). By this time all six of the Marlin children— Olga, Brigid, Randal, Sheila, John and Elisabeth—were actively contributing to the development of their mother's life and work! Canadian Summer (1948) follows the Marlin ("Mitchell") move to Canada and Friendly Gables (1960) gives the concluding tale of the Mitchell family, still in Canada. Patsy and the Pup (1950) came of Hilda's daily outings with young Elisabeth. King Oberon's Forest (1957), illustrated by daughter Brigid Marlin, was the only book published in the ten year period between Patsy and the Pup and Friendly Gables. These were the busy years when the children were growing up and when the family lived in a variety of places abroad.
            After a number of picture books in the following years (Little Old Bear [1962], Jeremy Bear [1963], Bennie and the New Baby [1964], New Baby is Lost [1964] and Rufus Round and Round [1973]) and her last book for Viking Press, Mogo's Flute (1966), Hilda's full-length books reflect a seriousness and depth exceeding that of her earlier ones. The maturity of writing and theme found in The Winged Watchman (1962), Penengro (1972) and The Borrowed House (1975), published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux,(currently out of print) caps her writing career. She herself thinks that The Borrowed House may be her best book. It certainly is more intricate in characterizations and plot than any of her other books. Family is still of importance in these later books, but in each case it is a family living under unusual or difficult circumstances; the Dutch Verhagen family in The Winged Watchman are living under Nazi oppression; Penengro is about an Irish orphan who finds acceptance among the persecuted gypsies; and The Borrowed House depicts the stresses of war upon a German family living in occupied Holland.

            Upon retirement, the Marlins moved to Berkhamsted, England in 1974 to be near three daughters and their families. (The rest of the Marlin children are scattered around the world—in Africa, Canada and the United States—) It was after the move to England that the last of Hilda's books were published by both American and English publishers. While these books were well received, it became apparent that "family" stories were less and less in vogue. Accordingly, Hilda laid aside her pen and returned to her "first" love of painting (something she had never given up entirely). In the lovely Marlin home near Berkhamsted Castle, surrounded by her extended family, she continues to paint, to pray, to exercise vigorous thought and humor.

            Hilda van Stockum's work has always been the overflow of a life deeply lived; she is a person who passionately values the little things, the small details, whether in everyday family life or in the com-position of a story or of a still-life. She has used her talents to bequeath a legacy of light to generations slipping further and further into cultural darkness—a legacy of wit, joy and stability in the ordinary things of life and love.

            Hilda Van Stockum died on November 1, 2006.