Once there were six sisters. The pretty one, the musical one, the clever one, the helpful one, the young one… And then there was the wild one. Dortchen Wild has loved Wilhelm Grimm since she was a young girl. Under the forbidding shadow of her father, the pair meet secretly to piece together a magical fairy tale collection. The story behind the stories of the Brothers Grimm.
The Wild Girl Book Review
This is an amazingly good book. There are some books you would give five stars to because they are well-written and intelligent. And then there are some that are both those things, but which have the added power of taking hold of your imagination and emotions, of making the characters real people that you care about so much you daydream about them and worry about them even when you’re not reading the book. The kind that stays with you long after you turn the last page. This is one of those kind.
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I won this book in a prize draw and didn’t know what to expect, despite having read Kate Forsyth’s previous novel, Bitter Greens. I’m a huge fan of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, but knew hardly anything about its creators. As Kate Forsyth says in her Foreword to the novel, most people imagine the Brothers Grimm as elderly, respected scholars, not as young men struggling to make ends meet in a land under foreign occupation. Did you know, for example, that there were more than two Brothers Grimm? And a Sister Grimm? I didn’t. Nor did I know about the family next door, the Wilds, and the heroine of this novel, Dortchen Wild.
Dortchen is a character it’s easy to relate to. At twelve years old, she falls in love with her best friend’s brother, a university student who she thinks will never see her as anything more than a child. She is known as the “wild one” of the family, but actually she’s a devoted and loving sister who works hard for her family. Her “wildness” comes more from her affinity with nature: her love of the forest and of things that grow, her knowledge of herbal remedies, and her penchant for the old tales, with their hint of pagan magic. Her large family (consisting mostly of girls, in contrast with the mostly-male Grimms) reminded me of a cross between the March family of Little Women and the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice. Actually, they live in the same era as the Bennets, in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. And, like the Marches, they enjoy spending time with their next-door-neighbours. Only, instead of having wealthy Laurie next door, the Wild girls live next to a family of junior Professor Bhaers, studious and impoverished since their father’s death, and nearly always hungry. Unlike the Marches, however, the girls also live under the rule of an authoritarian father, who disapproves of the Grimms and becomes increasingly abusive as the story goes on. I found myself aching for Dortchen in her many sufferings, and longing for her to find a happy ending like those in the fairy tales she loves.
Wilhelm Grimm is also easy to love. He is the kind and handsome boy-next-door, hard-working and devoted to his family, determined to preserve the folk tales of his little German princedom in the face of French conquest, but always with a kind word and a smile for Dortchen. It is impossible not to feel for him when he repeatedly becomes ill with asthma, often with only Dortchen’s herbal remedies to help, or when he and elder brother Jakob meet with repeated failure and unemployment. The Grimm family suffer terrible privations under Napoleon’s occupation, and Dortchen’s attempts to bring them food and medicine can only be attempted at risk of her father’s wrath. Yet, through it all, Wilhelm and his brother continue to write down all the old tales their friends and acquaintances know. And it is through the telling of tales that love will blossom between Wilhelm and Dortchen.
Kate Forsyth knows her fairy tales and she knows her history. And in this novel, she blends the two together with a masterful hand. She gives us a real sense of life under Napoleonic occupation for the inhabitants of Cassel. She also has the fairy tales Dorchen tells both mirror her experiences and give her strength to deal with them. If you ever doubted the importance of fairy tales, this book will remind you again why they are so important.
The Wild Girl is an adaptor’s dream. It adopts the technique, often used in films, of beginning (fairly) near to the end of the story, then going back to the beginning. But it is also divided into seven sections, each beginning with a fairy tale extract, which would make an ideal basis for a seven-part TV series. A win-win situation.
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.
I have loved none but you.”
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