The Seventh Etching is Judith K. White’s debut novel, and how novel it is! Classified as historical fiction, it brings to life a remarkable 17th-century Amsterdam. At that time, Amsterdam was considered a pivotal city; wealthy, artistic, and the center of world shipping and trade. White’s story begins with a vignette that describes the fictional Nicholass Stradwijk’s artistic strivings as a young lad. His drawings are the first piece of the puzzle that encompasses The Seventh Etching. A family historical drama, the book is so much more than that, as White deftly tells the intertwining stories of Nicholass, Isabela, Nelleke, Jos and their families.
As well as being a familial tale, White provides an interesting look at the way this orphanage was run in Amsterdam at this time, “Endowed by city funds, and well run by the Regents, (who were) members of Amsterdam’s select wealthy class…” and earmarked for the children of Amsterdam citizens only. The young charges were cared for, educated and brought up to be maidservants or tradesmen apprentices. The young Nelleke was eligible for admission by virtue of her family’s citizenship. Her story is first engages the reader.
As we experience Nelleke’s admission to the orphanage and struggle with her as she attempts to quell her oversized bump of curiosity, we also become involved in the story of the Spanish “big sister” at the orphanage—the lovely Isabela. Her task is to monitor the young charges assigned to her, taking care of their clothes, seeing that they attend classes and are on time for meals. In exchange for this service, she is given room and board. She, too, is an orphan, washed up upon Amsterdam’s shores when her father’s ship flounders.
The next key character we meet is the collector Jos Broekhof. Slight and short, he discovered the first six etchings of the series by Stradwijk and is desperate to find the seventh. Each is named a different day of the week; he has had them framed in sumptuous silver frames and stored in a hidden cabinet. There are seven matching frames, but one remains empty. The seventh was paid for, longed for, and is now apparently unattainable.
The etchings are erotic, playful, and striking in nature, and they appeal artistically and emotionally to the frustrated Jos. After the loss of their only child, his wife turned away from him, leaving him forlorn and at a loss. While trying to find the elusive seventh etching, Jos devotes his time to his business and his charitable works, one of which is the city’s orphanage.
So the family stories begin to become a whole. We endeavor to discover the connections, the mysterious family ties that link each character in White’s story. As we do, we also explore the ancient city of Amsterdam, learning to appreciate its beauty and its definitive usefulness to Europe as a trade center. We watch the orphans walk the streets, dressed in their distinctive red and blue clothing, and sit with them in classrooms, reciting their lessons. White brings it all to life, and as the reader comes up for some modern fresh air, the story we have read lingers, and continues to enchant.