Disguised: A Wartime Memoir

Overview

Told in her own words, here is the true story of a girl who posed as a boy during World War II — and dared to speak up for her fellow prisoners of war.

With the Japanese army poised to invade their Indonesian island in 1942, Rita la Fontaine’s family knew that they and the other Dutch and Dutch-Indonesian residents would soon become prisoners of war. Fearing that twelve-year-old Rita would be forced to act as a "comfort woman" for the Japanese soldiers, the family launched a ...

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Overview

Told in her own words, here is the true story of a girl who posed as a boy during World War II — and dared to speak up for her fellow prisoners of war.

With the Japanese army poised to invade their Indonesian island in 1942, Rita la Fontaine’s family knew that they and the other Dutch and Dutch-Indonesian residents would soon become prisoners of war. Fearing that twelve-year-old Rita would be forced to act as a "comfort woman" for the Japanese soldiers, the family launched a desperate plan to turn Rita into "Rick," cutting her hair short and dressing her in boy’s clothes. Rita’s aptitude for languages earned her a position as translator for the commandant of the prisoner camp, and for the next three years she played a dangerous game of disguise while advocating against poor conditions, injustice, and torture. Sixty-five years later, Rita describes a war experience like no other — a remarkable tale of integrity, fortitude, and honor.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
CHAPTER SEVEN

The Japanese established headquarters all over town. Our home was no longer ours. It was theirs. The local school would become our home away from home, but before going there we had to register at the police station.

At the station we joined other Dutch companions in distress. My father looked around and expressed surprise at the number of former Dutch government officials who were in the same situation.

I quickly observed that our family was the only one with children. A few single men were in the group, along with some older couples and one single woman — my teacher, Miss Seau.

When my mother saw Miss Seau, she immediately walked up to her and pulled her aside in private conversation. Miss Seau knew that I was a girl! She was the one who encouraged me to play the accordion on Saturdays at singing class. She led the students in song while I accompanied them on my accordion.

Just as the two women began to speak in low tones, heads bowed, my father approached to inform my mother that he was being called in for the "registration." I watched the two women from a short distance away. An expression of surprise came on Miss Seau’s face; then she walked away from my mother and in my direction.

"Hello, Miss Seau. Mom told you?"

She returned my greeting with a smile and a rather reserved, "Hello! You’re looking good! The change is very becoming."

Something in the way she looked at me made me uneasy, so I asked her, "Is anything wrong?" She moved closer to me and whispered, "Your mother told me everything except . . ." She paused for a moment, looking around to assure privacy.

"Except what, Miss Seau?"

"Except . . . what do I call you, Rita? What is your new name?"

Her question caught me totally off guard. We had forgotten to give me a new name! Rita wouldn’t do anymore. I needed a boy’s name. In our excitement, none of us had thought of it!

"Shhh! Excuse me, Miss Seau!" I said in panic. "Please don’t talk to anybody about me until I return." I fearfully looked around, afraid that someone might have overheard her call me by my real name.

When I whispered our oversight to my mother, she turned pale.

"Dear Lord, how could we have overlooked something so important?" She became frantic, realizing that my father was not there to discuss the matter. Tante Suus, noticing the commotion, came closer to see what was wrong. The two whispered and now it was my aunt’s turn to be shocked. At the same time, my father emerged from the office. When he approached them, Tante Suus sighed with relief and left my parents to talk.

From a distance, it was as if I was viewing a silent movie with the actors involved in a squabble. Then my father gently took my mother’s arm and led her toward us. He seemed very much in control, relaxed, and confident, unlike my mother. As they reached us, my father said to me with a big grin on his face, "Hi, Rick!"

"Is that my new name, Pop?" I whispered.

"Yes! From now on your name is Richard. You may be called Rick." When I heard that, it was as if the little girl named Rita with beautiful long brown hair no longer existed. I felt that this new creation by the name of Rick, with the boy’s haircut and dressed in boys’ clothing, had completely taken over her life.

My father then gathered us around him for a talk. He told my brothers that they had to forget they had a sister. "You now have a brother, and his name is Rick." René, who was much too young to really understand what was going on, took it all in stride. Ronald, on the other hand, seemed annoyed.

"I was very lucky that the clerk did not do any crosschecking, especially on Rita’s birth certificate," my father continued, addressing my mother and aunt. "I would not have known how to get out from under it if he had. It would have been disastrous, but . . . all is well. Thank goodness!"

I returned to Miss Seau to give her the news about my name. When I rejoined my family, Father Koevoets was there. He gave me two thumbs up and a wink as if to say, "Keep up the good work!"

Registration for all prisoners was completed that afternoon. We were ordered to gather up our belongings, line up, and march to the school across the street. Walking through the gate with the group reminded me of cattle being driven into a corral, just like in a western movie. On one side of the school yard, we rested on the grass in the cool shade of the trees. Japanese guards flanked the area, keeping a sharp eye on us.

Moments later, food was distributed. We had no idea where it came from or who had prepared it. During the meal, we tossed about many questions regarding our situation, but none of us knew the answers. One of the most crucial questions — "Will we stay together or be segregated? — " was left unanswered. Dread overcame us all.

I remembered what my father had said earlier, about how the enemy would have better control over its prisoners if they were all concentrated in one place. It was true, and it was happening now. There was no doubt in my mind that he had been right.

After lunch, the sharp sounds of slamming car doors cut through the already tense atmosphere. Voices at the front gate spoke what sounded like an order in Japanese, directed at us. Although none of us understood what was said, each of us instinctively jumped.

************
DISGUISED by Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli. Copyright (c) 2007 by Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.

Children's Literature - Caroline B. Hopenwasser
The author of this memoir recounts her years as a Dutch teenager in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. To protect her from being forced into the life of a "comfort" woman for the Japanese soldiers, her family disguised her as a boy, transforming her from Rita into Rick. As Rick, this young girl learned Japanese and became the official camp interpreter. For three years, she hid her true identity while she daringly worked to ensure the rights of her fellow prisoners. Although the ingenuity and bravery of this young woman cannot be doubted, the text is often slow and somewhat stilted. The length and slow pace of the story will turn off some readers; however, avid fans of memoirs or World War II will find the story interesting. Excerpts from this text could be used as interesting aids for Social Studies teachers to share with classes to bring a human face to prisoners of war. Reviewer: Caroline B. Hopenwasser
VOYA - Alice F. Stern
When she was twelve years old, Rita's island in Indonesia was invaded by the Japanese. For more than three years, Rita and her family were prisoners of war. Concerned about Rita's safety as a young woman, her family came up with a plan to make sure she did not become a "comfort woman." She changed her identity from Rita to Rick. Although Rita's story is one of courage, strength, and ingenuity, this memoir misses its mark. The voice is that of an adult looking back and not of a young person in the experience. Far too much is told rather than shown. In fact, when she does show, she chooses adult interactions more than moments with other youth. Also, despite the innate suspense of her experiences, the writing itself is not gripping. She moves from one situation to the next, often with abrupt chapter endings. One particular moment, however, needs to be addressed. While disguised as a boy, Rita is attacked and almost raped by a Japanese officer. As nanve as she had been about "comfort women" until her family explained, she understood even less about what almost happened with the Japanese officer. Pouring out her frightening tale to her beloved aunt, she writes that her aunt "reproached herself for not having told me about what she had been afraid of; namely, homosexuality." What almost happened was rape, not homosexuality; after all, the horrible situation for comfort women was not defined as heterosexuality. Unfortunately this memoir is not a great success.
School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up- Due to the foresight of he priest, 12-year-old Rita was disguised as a boy and became Rick while the Japanese occupied Sumatra during World War II. Although she didn't understand the risk of being a girl, the plan was to shield her from being conscripted as a "comfort woman" to serve enemy soldiers. After the takeover, her Dutch-Indonesian family became prisoners of war. This extraordinary memoir provides a firsthand look at Rick's life as a privileged prisoner as well as a child growing up in a time of war. Before being sent to a POW camp, Rick took a job to help support her family and learned Japanese. This made her an invaluable asset to prison wardens, who used her language skills to help run the camps. In this role, Rick experienced exceptional circumstances that challenged her to cope with adult issues. She witnessed intimate scenes and was cornered by a soldier who explained that boys can have sexual relations, too. While she maintained a quality of innocence, these incidents and her descriptions of squalid conditions in the camps beg for a mature audience. Still, Rita/Rick is engaging, with an authentic voice that gives substance to the facts.-Janet S. Thompson, Chicago Public Library

Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780763633295
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Publication date: 8/14/2007
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 384
  • Age range: 14 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.72 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli grew up in Indonesia, where she and her family endured three and a half years in Japanese POW camps. After the war, Rita resumed her life as a young woman and married a Dutch rubber planter. They have four grown children and live in Nashua, New Hampshire.
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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Japanese established headquarters all over town. Our home was no longer ours. It was theirs. The local school would become our home away from home, but before going there we had to register at the police station.

At the station we joined other Dutch companions in distress. My father looked around and expressed surprise at the number of former Dutch government officials who were in the same situation.

I quickly observed that our family was the only one with children. A few single men were in the group, along with some older couples and one single woman -- my teacher, Miss Seau.

When my mother saw Miss Seau, she immediately walked up to her and pulled her aside in private conversation. Miss Seau knew that I was a girl! She was the one who encouraged me to play the accordion on Saturdays at singing class. She led the students in song while I accompanied them on my accordion.

Just as the two women began to speak in low tones, heads bowed, my father approached to inform my mother that he was being called in for the "registration." I watched the two women from a short distance away. An expression of surprise came on Miss Seau’s face; then she walked away from my mother and in my direction.

"Hello, Miss Seau. Mom told you?"

She returned my greeting with a smile and a rather reserved, "Hello! You’re looking good! The change is very becoming."

Something in the way she looked at me made me uneasy, so I asked her, "Is anything wrong?" She moved closer to me and whispered, "Your mother told me everything except . . ." She paused for a moment, looking around to assure privacy.

"Except what, Miss Seau?"

"Except . . . what do I call you, Rita? What is your new name?"

Her question caught me totally off guard. We had forgotten to give me a new name! Rita wouldn’t do anymore. I needed a boy’s name. In our excitement, none of us had thought of it!

"Shhh! Excuse me, Miss Seau!" I said in panic. "Please don’t talk to anybody about me until I return." I fearfully looked around, afraid that someone might have overheard her call me by my real name.

When I whispered our oversight to my mother, she turned pale.

"Dear Lord, how could we have overlooked something so important?" She became frantic, realizing that my father was not there to discuss the matter. Tante Suus, noticing the commotion, came closer to see what was wrong. The two whispered and now it was my aunt’s turn to be shocked. At the same time, my father emerged from the office. When he approached them, Tante Suus sighed with relief and left my parents to talk.

From a distance, it was as if I was viewing a silent movie with the actors involved in a squabble. Then my father gently took my mother’s arm and led her toward us. He seemed very much in control, relaxed, and confident, unlike my mother. As they reached us, my father said to me with a big grin on his face, "Hi, Rick!"

"Is that my new name, Pop?" I whispered.

"Yes! From now on your name is Richard. You may be called Rick." When I heard that, it was as if the little girl named Rita with beautiful long brown hair no longer existed. I felt that this new creation by the name of Rick, with the boy’s haircut and dressed in boys’ clothing, had completely taken over her life.

My father then gathered us around him for a talk. He told my brothers that they had to forget they had a sister. "You now have a brother, and his name is Rick." René, who was much too young to really understand what was going on, took it all in stride. Ronald, on the other hand, seemed annoyed.

"I was very lucky that the clerk did not do any crosschecking, especially on Rita’s birth certificate," my father continued, addressing my mother and aunt. "I would not have known how to get out from under it if he had. It would have been disastrous, but . . . all is well. Thank goodness!"

I returned to Miss Seau to give her the news about my name. When I rejoined my family, Father Koevoets was there. He gave me two thumbs up and a wink as if to say, "Keep up the good work!"

Registration for all prisoners was completed that afternoon. We were ordered to gather up our belongings, line up, and march to the school across the street. Walking through the gate with the group reminded me of cattle being driven into a corral, just like in a western movie. On one side of the school yard, we rested on the grass in the cool shade of the trees. Japanese guards flanked the area, keeping a sharp eye on us.

Moments later, food was distributed. We had no idea where it came from or who had prepared it. During the meal, we tossed about many questions regarding our situation, but none of us knew the answers. One of the most crucial questions -- "Will we stay together or be segregated? -- " was left unanswered. Dread overcame us all.

I remembered what my father had said earlier, about how the enemy would have better control over its prisoners if they were all concentrated in one place. It was true, and it was happening now. There was no doubt in my mind that he had been right.

After lunch, the sharp sounds of slamming car doors cut through the already tense atmosphere. Voices at the front gate spoke what sounded like an order in Japanese, directed at us. Although none of us understood what was said, each of us instinctively jumped.

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