Friday, February 12, 2016

The Wild Girl

(Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
Early in the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte is taking over Europe, and the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel falls quickly to the French.  As the war continues, control of this kingdom switches back and forth, leaving the residents at the mercy of the French, the German, the Russian, or the Cossack armies.  In the midst of this tumultuous time, the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, are collecting as many old German stories as they can to preserve them.  Once completed, they hope to find a publisher for the compilation in order to support their family financially.  At this point, most readers of this review will realize that it’s the story of the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, but who is the wild girl?

One of their primary sources for the old tales is Dortchen Wild, next door neighbor at one time to the Grimm family and best friend of Lotte Grimm, younger sister of the brothers.  Years later Wilhelm Grimm will marry Dortchen Wild, but not much is known about Dortchen’s early life.  Author Kate Forsyth gives the reader Dortchen’s story in this novel, based on her research of a few existing documents and using her imagination to fill in the gaps. 

As a friend of mine observed, it's ironic that the Grimm brothers are close associates of the Wild family.  The surnames often fit the circumstances of their lives.  Dortchen is considered a wild child only because she loves the out-of-doors and is full of curiosity, which sometimes leads her to defy her father.  Her father seems intent on breaking her will to insure she will never leave the family home.  The Grimms’ economic condition is often grim but their lives are generally happy.  Dortchen’s family circumstances are often grim though they are better off financially.

In the author’s notes, Forsyth explains how she came to her conclusions about Dortsen’s childhood and early adulthood.  Forsyth holds a PhD in fairy tale retelling and has the necessary research and background to pull off this fictionalized historical account of the Grimm Brothers and Dortchen Wild.

Sometimes Forsyth’s dialogue strikes a false note with me, e.g., it seems self-conscious and interrupts my immersion in the story.  Sometimes the plot timelines get “jumpy” or the facts associated with the ongoing war get confusing, interfering with the flow of the story.  None of these issues diminished my pleasure in reading the book, however, nor my admiration of the Forsyth’s knowledge and skill in putting together a fascinating story of a little known literary figure.