Kate Forsyth, The Wild Girl (2013, US edition 2015)
Once upon a time, there was a young girl who fell in love with the boy next door. He was handsome, clever, and kind, but much too poor to think of marriage, and her stern and forbidding father kept her closely guarded. Only after many years of trials and delays were the couple able to marry, and build a happier life together.
This is no fairy tale, but the true story of Dortchen Wild, who became the wife of Wilhelm Grimm, editor with his brother Jakob of the famous German story collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen. While little is known about her — not much more than the bare outline above — out of these scraps of material Kate Forsyth has woven a moving and compelling novel that demonstrates the power of stories to reveal and heal our innermost souls.
For one thing we do know about Dortchen is that she was a storyteller. She told Wilhelm a quarter of the tales included in the first edition of the Grimm collection, although she and other contributors were uncredited and remained largely ignored throughout most of the ensuing reprints and revisions. The brothers wanted to emphasize the roots of the tales in old Germanic tradition, not how they were filtered through the imagination of a nineteen-year-old girl. And while their deep universality and archetypal value have become clear over the past two centuries, it’s still intriguing to wonder what individual experiences might have shaped the stories and their tellers. With so little else to go by, what do Dortchen’s stories tell us about her? They are some of the most beautiful, extraordinary, and puzzling of the whole collection, including the disturbing “Coat of Many Furs,” with its themes of incest, oppression, and silence. Where did they come from, and what happened to the girl who told them?
Without reducing these stories to mere personal allegories, Forsyth imaginatively reconstructs a possible life for Dortchen that is as dark and grim as the tales themselves, but ultimately as uplifting and redemptive. Along the way she also illuminates the place, time, and people that gave them birth, to which I’m embarrassed to say I never gave a thought before. I never considered the plight of the Germanic kingdoms under Napoleonic rule, the fight to preserve their heritage as they were being overrun by French and Russian soldiers, having their young men conscripted into a doomed army, their wealth and resources ruined and lost by puppet kings. I never thought of how determined and brave the Grimm brothers were to keep at their task of preserving stories and poems that many must have thought useless at such a turbulent time, even though they were so poor they could hardly keep body and soul together. And above all, I never wondered who told them these stories, or what gave them their sources of spiritual strength and power.
I’m so glad that Kate Forsyth brought these questions to light, and that in The Wild Girl she has crafted them into such a rich story of love, suffering, and redemption. We may never know most of the objective facts of Dortchen’s life, but for the time of this telling she can live for us again, in a way that is true to the nature and essence of her marvelous tales.
I’m delighted to be able to offer a copy of The Wild Girl courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books. This giveaway will run through July 7 and is open to US entrants age 18 and over. Please use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter, and good luck!