Corrie ten Boom wakes up one early January morning in 1937 to discover that there will be exceptionally sunny weather for her family’s watch shop’s one-hundredth birthday party. In a small house called the Beje in Haarlem, Holland, Corrie gazes in the mirror, waltzes to her closet and gets into her new maroon dress, while reflecting on the changing times. Unmarried and forty-five years old, she feels less graceful and slender than her sister Betsie who is seven years older. Nevertheless, Corrie dresses in relatively modern fashions compared to her mother’s generation who wore black from the neck down.
In her party finery, Corrie hurries to answer the doorbell, receiving the first of many bouquets of flowers, rather than Herman Sluring or Pickwick as she expected. A beloved family friend who is generous and kind, Pickwick gets his nickname from the work by Charles Dickens on account of his incredibly ugly face. The two sisters arrange the flowers in a room full of ticking watches, as Corrie reflects that the family is finally catching onto more effective advertising methods although they are too generous to make much money from the business.
At 7:45 Hans the apprentice arrives, at 8:00 Toos the book keeper comes and as he does every day at 8:10 Father ten Boom comes down to breakfast. Afterwards they have scripture reading according to tradition. Christoffels, the repairman arrives midway through, surprising everyone with a brand new suit, although he normally wears shabby clothes. He arrived at the shop years ago after being a traveling clock repairman. The group then reminisces about Mama ten Boom and her delight in special occasions such as these. In her present voice, Corrie remarks that she can hardly believe that so much suffering - including the death of her father and disgraceful treatment of his sister - would follow such happiness.
Afterwards the whole of Haarlem shows up to celebrate with this well loved family and Corrie has to go to her sister Nollie, her husband and six children’s house to fetch more coffee cups. Nollie excitedly promises that the whole family, including Corrie’s favorite nephew Peter, will come to the Beje soon.
Back at the house, Father is busy playing with the children who enjoy listening to the dozens of watches ticking, which the jovial old man carries with him to regulate them. Pickwick arrives, initially scaring people with his face, but eventually winning them over by using his stomach to hold his coffee cup. The shop’s competitors, Mr. and Mrs. Kan, arrive to congratulate the family. Nollie and her family arrive. Corrie jokes with Peter and wonders where her older brother Willem is. An ordained minister, Willem lives with his wife and children about thirty miles away in Hilversum. He works as head of the Dutch Reformed Church’s program for Jewish outreach, raising money to house elderly Jews in his town. Now there are young Jewish refugees looking for shelter against the rising threat of Hitler and the Nazis. Back in 1927, Willem saw the growing evil and rising contempt for human life and wrote about it in his doctoral thesis. Most of the Jewish watch suppliers have gone mysteriously out of business. Corrie listens to conversations in the house about Hitler’s intentions and the threat of war. Someone claims that war will not affect Holland, while others depend on German trade and would suffer.
Suddenly Willem enters the room, accompanied by a thirty-year old Jewish man in traditional broad-brimmed hat and long black coat. As everyone stares at the man’s burnt face, Willem introduces him as Herr Gutlieber in German. Willem explains to Corrie in Dutch that the man escaped from Munich in a milk truck after teenagers set fire to his beard. Most of the group tries to make Gutlieber feel comfortable and less awkward, while some hope that the police will restore order in Germany.
At the close of the day, Corrie lies in her bed and remembers her childhood. She reflects that memories are more important for the future than the past. Moreover, God uses these experiences as preparation for future tasks. She can hardly believe that her uneventful life would change so quickly or that her childhood lessons would be of great use to her.
The protagonist, Corrie ten Boom, begins her narrative on the eve of World War II with a joyful tone, which makes her appear blissfully ignorant of international politics. Corrie is a middle-aged spinster who lives with her father and sister, Betsie. She is unfashionable, unworldly, narrating in a simple style, which belies her intelligence and wit. Despite Corrie’s simplicity of style, or perhaps because of it, she tells her life story with eloquence and cogency. Traveling back and forth between present and past, Corrie structures the biography according to the way memory works. There are networks of associations, which weave in and out of present-day, the events surround WWII and her childhood. Mostly, however, the reader experiences the events alongside of Corrie, reacting with her rather than retrospectively reflecting. Her tone is serious, but not without good humor.
In this chapter, Corrie introduces herself, her family, the Beje, and the townspeople of Haarlem. In supporting roles to Corrie are Betsie and Father. Father acts as a patriarch figure to the townspeople who respectfully call him Opa and the Grand Old Man of Haarlem. His bright blue eyes and cheerful smile endear him to adults and children alike. Although Father’s forgetfulness and generosity cause him to falter with the business aspect of owning a watch shop, his finely honed skills in watch repair are unparalleled. Father believes in the Christian faith and practices its precepts of love, charity and generosity. Moreover, Father deeply believes that the Jews are God’s chosen people. This motif appears throughout and serves to energize the ten Boom family’s efforts to help Jewish refugees during the war.
In this chapter, Corrie introduces her sister Betsie, who serves as a major character for most of the narrative. Moreover, Betsie acts as a foil to Corrie, emphasizing certain important aspects of Corrie, the main protagonist. With chestnut hair and a slender figure, Betsie appears elegant and beautiful for her age. Betsie’s grace comes comes from having a kind heart and candid nature. Betsie provides a stabilizing influence for Corrie who can be impatient and volatile on occasion. Without Betsie’s influence, Corrie’s narrative would be more self-interested and less transformative.
With Betsie acting as her foil, Corrie introduces elements of her character: joy, impatience, naïveté, and almost childlike wonder at things like parties and new dresses. Despite their differences in character and appearance, Corrie and Betsie share a deep love for each other. Corrie feels reverent awe for her beautiful and graceful older sister. Corrie sees her other sister Nollie’s beauty without envy, according to Corrie’s generous nature. Corrie’s impatience and quick tongue often get her into trouble. However, she always means well.
During the party, Corrie explains the origins of a family friend’s nickname. The family affectionately calls Herman Sluring, Pickwick. The name comes from the work by Dickens, which has an illustration that resembles Herman Sluring, who is incredibly unattractive. However, Pickwick treats everyone with warmth, kindness and good humor, which endears him to people upon closer acquaintance. Pickwick acts as a metaphor for the inward beauty of seemingly ugly people. This symbol stands against German Nationalist ideology, which judges by outward appearances rather than inner worth.
Lastly, Corrie introduces the reader to the rickety old house, called the Beje. It is one room wide and two rooms deep, situated in the cramped city streets of Haarlem. With interplaying light and darkness on the old wooden walls, the sharply angled house appears like a Rembrandt painting. The thousands of watches in the shop provide the Beje with a kind of heartbeat, which makes the house seem alive. In fact, the Beje, with crooked stairs and floor levels askew, almost acts as another character. Its personality complements the warm and loving family who reside within its walls.
The mood of the narrative continues to be bright during the watch shop birthday celebration. Corrie establishes the atmosphere of Haarlem and its inhabitants, who are neighborly and respectful of age and tradition. However, Corrie faces the abrupt changing of the times displayed in little matters like fashion and codes of conduct. She and her family support old-world attitudes about charity and helping the weak. However, WWII nearly shatters Corrie’s small existence. At the party, people begin discussing these very issues, which include the threat of war with Germany. Many hope that Holland will remain neutral as they did in WWI. Foreshadowing the future, Willem tells his family that Germany’s treatment of the Jews will only grow worse.
Finally, Herr Gutlieber’s appearance changes the tone of the biography, imbuing everything with gravity. Corrie ten Boom introduces the threat of war through gossip in a parlor, rather than on the radio or a battlefield. This biography occurs in a domestic space, although the threat of bombs is never far off. Throughout the work, Corrie takes large events and their great consequences and reduces it to a level of understanding to which most people can relate.