In writing a historical novel about Dutch World War II resistance fighter Hannie Schaft, author Buzzy Jackson didn’t feel like she needed to embellish anything to craft a compelling narrative.
“Her story was already so amazing that I really didn’t need to add much,” Jackson says. In fact, despite To Die Beautiful clocking in at 430 pages, there was plenty Jackson had to leave out when depicting Hannie’s fight against the Nazi invasion of her homeland. The material she does include, though, is as propulsive as it is tragic.
In 1940, Schaft was 19 years old and living in Nazi-occupied Holland when she joined the Dutch Resistance movement and went on to assassinate Nazi leaders and bomb munition factories, among other anti-facist activities. She was even on the Nazis’ most-wanted list for her actions.
Her tactics caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who called her out as “the girl with the red hair.” (The novel is titled The Girl With the Red Hair outside the United States.) That’s also one of the common nicknames for Jannetje Johanna Schaft in Holland, who went by “Hannie” in the resistance movement.
Hannie has long been celebrated as a Dutch icon and is buried in the Dutch Honorary Cemetery Bloemendaal. Her life and work is honored each year in the Netherlands, and there is a monument of her in her hometown of Haarlem.
Bringing Hannie to Life
Jackson, who lives in Boulder and works as an editor and consultant when she isn’t writing, was visiting the Verzetsmuseum (Resistance Museum) in Amsterdam in 2016 when she first heard about Hannie. Inside a small glass display case were a pair of round, wire-rimmed glasses, a battered pistol, and a photograph of a young, auburn-haired woman in a skirt, blouse and sensible shoes — with a defiant look on her face.
At first Jackson thought she would write Hannie’s story as a biography. That made sense with the author’s background as a historian and non-fiction writer. For about a year and a half she dove into the research, combing through the archives and interviewing people with knowledge on the subject. Then she got stuck.
“I was trying to wrap my mind around how to frame the story, and I started to realize that although there is a lot of great archival material related to World War II and to the Dutch Resistance, there really was not a lot of material about Hannie Schaft and certainly not much in her own words,” Jackson says.
There was nothing to draw upon like one of the most famous WWII texts, The Diary of a Young Girl, where Anne Frank left behind, in her own words, what her life was like in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
“We know so much about Anne Frank, but that’s because she left a diary,” Jackson says.
Hannie, on the other hand, would not have wanted to risk anyone finding a record of her activities as an underground resistance fighter. Jackson was left to draw on a few of her surviving letters and a memoir by Truus Oversteegen — a major character in To Die Beautiful.
“I was really in a bind,” Jackson says. “If I wanted to include any real dialogue in the biography, there was hardly going to be any. There was nothing to quote. The idea of writing a fairly serious, big book with very little dialogue is kind of dry.”
To bring Hannie to the page by giving her an inner life readers could relate to, Jackson’s literary agent suggested she write the story as a novel. Jackson agreed, taking inspiration from how Thomas Keneally wrote another famous WWII story, Schindler’s List, and based the story in facts but used fictional techniques to shape the narrative.
Fortunately for Jackson, by the time she had decided to shift this story away from non-fiction, she’d already written three other “practice novels,” as she calls them.
“Every time I wrote one of those I learned a lot, and I felt like I was getting better at it,” Jackson says. “I thought, ‘Well, what the hell, I might as well try it.’”
The result is a made-for-the-big-screen narrative of high stakes and gripping drama, as Hannie becomes increasingly involved with the resistance movement and the amount of danger she takes on becomes more and more intense.
When it came to achieving that cinematic scope as a novelist, Jackson highlights the importance of a writers’ group she belongs to. There are about six people in her group who meet regularly, at least once a month, to share pages and hold each other accountable to continuously work on new material. She encourages any young writer to find something similar.
“When I first came back from Amsterdam I said, ‘You guys, I think I have an idea for a book.’ And they were super supportive through the whole thing,” Jackson says. “They definitely were a huge part of getting this to the finish line.”
ON THE PAGE: To Die Beautiful by Buzzy Jackson is available now in hardcover via Dutton / Penguin Books.