Kees de jongen (Kees the Boy) is Theo Thijssen's best known and most beloved book. The first fragments were already written in 1908, but the story as a whole was first published, in installments, in Thijssens weekly School en Huis1> (School and Home). The book came out in 1923.
The story is set about 1890. The ‘hero’ is 12-year-old Kees Bakels, son of a cobbler and shopkeeper in the poor Jordaan quarter. After his father dies of tuberculosis, Kees's illusions about the select social status of his middle class family between the Jordaan proletariat fade aways. Happy contrast is his developing cautious romance with schoolfriend Rosa Overbeek. Kees ialways fantazises that he, despite the circumstances, will be recognized as "not just a ordinary boy" and wil become famous after all.
In 'Kees de jongen' Thijssen used autobiographical data in this novel (his own father, also a cobbler in the Jordaan, died when Theo was 11 years old), but this was not the essence. He meant to give a general psychological portrait of a boy of that age, constantly switching between fantasy and reality. In that respect Kees is a sort of juvenile Walter Mitty.
Kees de jongen is among the most beloved books in Dutch literature. It is praised because of its subtile humour, psychological insight and sensitivity without any sentimentality, and besides that appreciated for its recollection of the atmosphere of old Amsterdam.
"Kees was on his way back from a delivery, way over on the other side of the Vondelpark. He didn’t feel much like walking down Overtoom, that dull street, and thought he’d take a short cut through the park. It felt good to walk under the trees. Pity it wasn’t Friday, he would have been able to listen to the music. Last year he often came down whith his father for the concerts. Friday evenings before it got dark. His uncle Dirk often came along too, but that was before they had fallen out. Kees would stand between the two men with an serious look on his face. They’d listen with their heads cocked to one side, and every now and then they’d say something about the music being from Faust or suchlike.
There were always boys making a racket nearby, and Kees’s uncle would get angry and say ‘Bloody yobs’. Then Kees would stand so still that he’d get cramp in his legs. One time he vowed to himself to imprint one of these boys faces into his memory. And if he ever met him anywhere, he’d give him a bloody nose...."
(Translated by Sam Herman.)
The rich middle classes of Amsterdam about 1890 were often to be seen at the newly built Stadsschouwburg (municipal theatre) and Concertgebouw (concert hall). The lower middle classes were also able to indulge in a little culture listening to the (free) classical concerts in Vondelpark, while the sophisticated residents of the area took their evening stroll.