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With a book like this, many readers cheat themselves by assuming that they already know what it's about, because they heard the outline of the story before, and therefore they have no need to really read it. A lot like the way some people treat the Bible, or at least large parts of the Bible. Anyway, I recently re-read this book to one of my daughters, and can report that upon close consideration, this book is really a retrospective Calvinistic explanation for how old Dr. Boekman finds a successor for his surgical practice, following Dr. Boekman's disappointment in his only son, who never liked medicine and who in fact found a reason to run away from Holland to resettle in England to pursue a business career. The rich descriptions of Dutch history and culture form the context for this drama.
Consequently, Dr. Boekman's whole outlook on life, exemplified by his perpetual frown, descends into depression as he humorlessly goes about his surgical practice, all the while increasing his fame which radiates from Amsterdam far out into the provinces, symbolized by the transportation and communication pathway of the frozen canals, over which all ages and classes of people happily skate through what used to be extremely cold winter months in Holland. These canals have not frozen solid on a regular basis for many decades.
These frozen canals in turn exemplify Dr. Boekman's frozen heart, which ultimately gets melted as a result of the importuning of Raff Brinker's son, young Hans, who cajoles old Dr. Boekman into taking a look at old Raff, who has been an invalid since suffering a closed head trauma while working out on the dikes during a fierce storm.
Dr. Boekman ends up surgically unblocking the "brainfreeze" suffered by Raff Brinker, who comes back to life "talking like an Amsterdam lawyer" which is a complete turn around from his invalid state where he appeared to be a distant, angry, barely controllable hulk crouching in his house by the fire, and casting a gloom of social obloquy which tainted not only his children, but his very cottage, in the eyes of most of the other respectable members of Dutch society, as they skated by on their local frozen canal.
By the end of the book, the connection achieved by Hans Brinker between his remote father and the remote surgeon seems to have spread, or networked, and young Hans is a rising surgeon practicing with Dr. Boekman, and happily married, while Dr. Boekman's biological son returns, or is redeemed back from England to practice a bustling business trade also in Amsterdam. The silver skates and the races on the canals are mainly a way for Hans to prove something to himself, that he can set his mind to what he wishes to achieve, and against all odds achieve it. The fact that all of this works to bring reconciliation and happiness back into people who are disconnected and frozen, rather than constituting a sappy, Dickensian series of unlikely coincidences, instead creates more of an echo of predestination than merely a "happy ending."
But then again, this is only one explanation of what we have here in this classic book.