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Book Review: “The Devil’s Grin”, by Toni Harting
by Cliff Jacobson
I start a lot of books that I don’t finish. “The Devil’s Grin” was one I couldn’t put down!
Paddlers who are familiar with Toni Harting’s earlier books, “Shooting Paddlers (photographic Adventures With Canoeists, Kayakers And Rafters)” and “French River: (Canoeing the River of the Stick-Wavers)”, will be surprised by this book which was written in 2013, just before Toni died.”. Unlike his former books, “The Devil’s Grin” is not about wilderness canoeing or photography: instead, it is the gripping true story of the time that Toni and his family spent as civilian prisoners of war in Japanese concentration camps during World War II.
Background: Toni was was born in Indonesia in1927 to parents Tine Pons and Anton Harting. Anton was a highly respected engineer who worked at the Geological Research Department in Bandoeng, Indonesia. The Harting’s enjoyed a happy, healthy life until March, 1942 when the Japanese arrived and imprisoned all the Dutch. Toni was just 16 years old when he and his family were interned in their first camp. “The Devil’s Grin” details how he and his parents survived starvation, disease and the brutal beatings of the Japanese guards. The book examines the psychology that defined the Japanese mind during the war years—why they were so brutal and why surrender was never an option—and why it was ultimately necessary for the United States to drop the atom bomb(s).
I first met Toni at a canoe show in Canada many years ago. There, I was introduced to his exquisite, award-winning photographs, many of which would eventually find their way into his books. During our talks about canoeing, Toni shared stories about his teen life in the concentration camps—the frequent beatings, rampant disease, constant starvation, catching rats and snakes (at risk of brutal punishment) to stave off starvation and the growing death toll. Sitting across from Toni with a good Canadian beer in hand, I would never have guessed that this kind-hearted, talented man had endured such hardships.
Though Toni is best known for his award-winning photos (one of which was used in the design of a Canada Post stamp) he was an accomplished writer. In 2013, he offered the "Devil's Grin" as a free PDF download on his web-site. It has been unavailable since his death so I am pleased to offer it here.