Three Ordinary Girls is the richly researched story of the young women whose acts of heroism represent the story of the Dutch resistance during World War II. Cinematically crafted and reconstructed by award-winning history author Tim Brady, the book paints a portrait of sisters and friends who cleverly wielded the only weapons at their disposal – wits, bravery, audacity, intelligence, and youth – to repeatedly undermine the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators.
Tell me a little about your book “Three ordinary Girls”
“Three Ordinary Girls” is the story of three young Dutch women who became active in the Resistance movement in the Netherlands during WWII. Two sisters, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen were just teenagers when the Germans occupied their country in 1940. Hannie Schaft, who would become their friend during the course of the war, was only 20 and a college student. All three began their work in the resistance with dangerous, but more commonplace acts of illegalities: they distributed anti-Nazi literature; they stole precious id cards to give to Jewish refugees in the country; they met in secret with like-minded individuals who would soon form and organize an active resistance cell. Before too long, their activities took a far more serious turn and they were soon looking for weapons to use against the occupiers. They became, by the end of the war, spies, saboteurs, and actual assassins for the resistance— an extraordinary chain of events for women so young during the war.
What is the backstory behind your book?
After Freddie Decker-Oversteegen, died in September 2018, just days before her 93rd birthday, my agent sent me a link to her obituary in the New York Times, suggesting her life might make a good story. I’d never heard of Freddie or her sister, Truus, nor the third of the trio that would make up the principal characters in my book, their friend, Hannie Schaft. But just reading the obituary was enough to convince me that theirs was a story that ought to be told to an American audience. Three young women, two of them teenagers, the third, a college student, had joined a Dutch resistance cell during World War II. Not only did they perform the sort of dangerous daily tasks of resistance like passing out newspapers and literature, looking for opportunities to swipe id cards, and helping to transport Jews and other members of the underground from one safe house to the next; but ultimately, they performed acts of violence directly against their oppressors. They killed Nazis and Dutch collaborators with guns fired from their own hands. These were rare acts of resistance for women, not just in The Netherlands, but in the whole of Europe. They were, perhaps obviously, rarer still for teenage girls. I knew just by reading the obituary that if the outline of Freddie and her sister’s lives were actually true, I would just have to convey the story accurately to make it compelling.
Was there an experience that caused you to see a need for “Three ordinary Girls?”
No particular experience, but just a general sense that there was a dearth of knowledge about the Dutch resistance during WWII in the U.S. Beyond the story of Ann Frank and perhaps Corrie ten Boom, there seemed little that was widely known about the experiences of the people of the Netherlands during the war. I knew little myself.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Anyone who has traveled to the Netherlands knows how crucial and ubiquitous bicycles are to life in the country. The girls practically lived on their bikes during the war, which was oftentimes made difficult by the fact that parts, particularly, rubber tires were very difficult to come by. Nonetheless, they would continue to ride, sometimes on rims. They even performed some of their liquidaties (assassinations) while riding double on bicycle through the streets of Haarlem, and they would practice this tactic out in the dines by the North Sea.
What books do you recommend which influenced your thinking on leadership?
I would highly recommend two books on Civil War-era leaders, both very well-known: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals for its depiction of how Lincoln used the great political leaders of his day to aid his own leadership during the course of the war. The other is Grant by Ron Chernow, which is a surprising portrait of how a flawed but profoundly decent man handles the great burdens of leadership while remaining entirely human. I came to deeply admire Grant, even as he made some of the most difficult and bloody decisions that any general has ever had to make in an awful war. I think both he and Lincoln were the sort of leaders, unfortunately too rare, who understand, through their own experiences, the true meaning of humility and so live their lives in its light.
What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
Over the years I have become devoted to the sort of narrative histories that I like to write. Modern writers who I admire deeply include Erik Larson, Candice Millard, Hampton Sides, Nathaniel Phlbrick. Laura Hillenbrand, and the late Tony Horwitz. Past writers include Evan Connell (Son of the Morning Star) and Cornelius Ryan (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far).
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.
I began my writing career in fiction. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where I got an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I started freelance writing when I got out of school and took a job at a PBS television, where I was assigned to help develop a Ken Burns-style documentary series on the American Revolution. My undergraduate degree was in history from the University of Wisconsin and I found that working on the documentary revived my interest in the subject. By the time the documentary aired in 1998, I was hooked on working in history writing and continued to pursue the genre after leaving PBS.
Tim Brady is the author of several highly praised and researched works of nonfiction and history, including HIS FATHER’S SON: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Penguin Random House); A DEATH IN SAN PIETRO: Ernie Pyle, John Huston and the Fight for Purple Heart Valley (Da Capo); and TWELVE DESPERATE MILES: The Epic WWII Voyage of the S.S. Contessa (Crown). Brady helped to develop the Peabody Award-winning series, Liberty! The American Revolution for PBS and co-wrote Minnesota: A History of the Land, which won a Regional Emmy for Documentary writing.
Brady is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin (B.A. History, 1979) and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop (M.F.A. Fiction writing, 1983). For years he has written on the history of the University of Minnesota for the U of M’s AlumniMagazine Minnesota. He also writes for the University of Wisconsin alumni magazine, the U.S. Naval Academy alumni magazine, as well as for Macalester and Carleton Colleges.