Joseph Koot book
Looking For Bill, Finding Myself is the story of a Dutch farming family who immigrated in the early 1950s to Ontario, Canada to make their home. It is related in vivid detail from the point of view of the youngest child in the family, Joseph Koot, whose life story forms the backbone of the memoir.
I'd heard that Joseph had been writing his memoirs for the past six years and I was intrigued. He and I had become friends while working for the Tantramar Seniors' College.
Every spring Joseph would happily bid farewell to our committee and resume walking across Europe, a pilgrimage of 6,000 kilometres.
What on earth would possess a man to take on such a challenge?
Koot's memoir provides the answer. By focusing on the years between birth and age 14 we see how all aspects of his childhood joined to create a path on which he has been walking ever since.
We marvel at the powerful effect on his life's trajectory his own thoughts, feelings and actions have had, changing his life significantly from what it might have been.
The book plunges us immediately into a tragic accident within Joseph's family, which permanently changed his life. As the memoir unfolds, our understanding of this tragedy deepens, subtly colouring and shaping our perception of everything that has come before.
In retirement during his healing walks Joseph gradually found the way to come to terms with the loss of his brother Bill.
Written in accessible prose, and sprinkled throughout with colourful stories and anecdotes, Joseph engages the reader in his life, first as the youngest child of 12 on the 50-acre family farm in the village of Koudekerk aan den Rijn in the Netherlands.
Laced throughout are phrases in his mother tongue which add zest and authenticity to the stories. Some of these are things he remembers his mother saying to him while others are ditties sung by the children such as this Christmas rhyme: “Sinterklaas, kapoentje, gooi wat in m'n schoentje, gooi wat in m'n laarsje. Dank u Sinterklaasje!” (Saint Nicholas, sweet man, throw something into my shoe, throw something into my boot. Thank you Saint Nicholas!)
We experience daily life on the South Holland farm through the innocent eyes and ears of little Joseph. Much of what he remembers is simply delightful; exquisite details light up his memories from within. Other incidents combine darker feelings and words that Joseph himself remembers, with stories later told to him about these events by grown-ups.
The Koot family's immigration to Canada in 1952 when Joseph was five was a huge undertaking. We bear witness to the mind-numbing harshness of his parents' lives as they worked night and day, his father doing backbreaking farm labour, and his mother raising their large family. Joseph's parents, like many other immigrants, didn't have time to learn English so the children were compelled to teach them the ways of their adopted country.
Just as in many Canadian Catholic families, it was expected that one child in the Koot family would become a priest.
At first, this was to be his brother Bill, but Joseph, too, thought he might become a priest, and spent much of his childhood living at, and receiving his schooling in, the seminary -- years filled with deep loneliness and gut-wrenching homesickness.
Looking For Bill, Finding Myself is an honest, deeply moving story told in the clear strong voice of its writer. The tone is not fancy, erudite or affected. First and foremost Joseph undertook the writing to help himself to heal from the wounds of his childhood. But the memoir emerged as a beautiful gift to his birth family – brothers and sisters and their families – and to his dear wife, children and grandchildren. It's a wonderful read for anyone.