"No story was just a story, though. It was a suitcase stuffed with secrets."
I was thrilled to find my library already had Kate Forsyth's latest book available! (Well, in America-The Beast's Garden is already available in Australia.) I was expecting to enjoy The Wild Girl and I was not disappointed!
It's a beautiful story about Dortchen Wild, the girl who grew up next to the Grimm family and ended up marrying Wilhelm Grimm, as well as telling him many of the most loved tales featured in the collection. My favorite thing about Forsyth is how committed she is to research and historical details. Obviously she had to take some creative liberties-very little research exists on Dortchen Wild, which is a shame. For all the books published on the Grimms, for collecting and editing the tales, the significance of the original teller shouldn't be overlooked. Yet even though Forsyth had to use her imagination to fill in some gaps of knowledge, I think she did a good job of remaining true to what is known rather than twisting facts to make for a good story.
In fact, towards the middle of the book, I was beginning to think it was a little excessively dark. But Forsyth also includes a fantastic afterword that explains the questions I had been asking as I read-how much of this is historical and how much was invented? I don't want to give anything away, but I think she came up with a good explanation for some of the mysteries that surround Dortchen and her relationship with Wilhelm. But fun facts (from the afterword): the real Dortchen had written a letter to Lotte Grimm when she was 12 confessing her crush on Wilhelm. They weren't married until 1825, but in his autobiography Wilhelm wrote: "I have never ceased to thank God for the blessing and happiness of this marriage."
The book is historical fiction, fairy tale, romance, coming of age, a war novel, a study of a troubled family-it's so many things rolled into one. And aside from the story, I'm glad I read it just for the information I learned and can now remember better. I've read multiple books on the Grimms before; I've read about the different people who likely told them the stories, the people who helped them publish the books, the tendencies of each brother when editing-but those are all details I didn't necessarily remember or keep straight in my head. That's the power of a novel-not only did I read a very sweet romance, but now I feel like I have a sense of the difference in Wilhelm's personalities verses Jakob. I've read before about the Napoleonic invasion and how that motivated the brothers to collect tales that would be true to their German heritage, but I really had no idea what that would have been like (Napoleon wasn't really covered in my American education...I think we had one semester to gloss over all the major European monarchies).
It's been typical lately for critics to get upset about the changes the Grimms made to the tales and how they were made less authentic. But when you read the story, you can easily imagine why they would have made those changes. Responsible for providing for their family during a very hard time, they needed money and couldn't have months of work go to waste if no one would buy their books. The Grimms often went hungry (literally-not just "it's been 5 hours since I had lunch and I'm so hungry", but "I've had to live off of small amounts of cabbage soup all winter and we don't have coffee so we grind acorns" hungry).
Also, seeing the stories through Dortchen's eyes, I couldn't help but think of those who are upset that traditional fairy tales feature more passive females who are rewarded for doing housework. I think sometimes we almost get the idea that fairy tales were made by a bunch of old white men sitting around and thinking of stories that would "put women in their place", but you see that the tales really reflected the lives of the women who told them. Life was hard-no man would think of doing any of the "women's work" around the house, and the women were responsible for all of the household chores in an era before dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines, etc., no matter how many women there were in the house (the Grimms had one sister, Lotte, who was expected to take care of all of them all by herself). The women in the story didn't have to pretend too much to relate to Cinderella, or even the extreme hunger in "Hansel and Gretel," or some of the trauma found in other fairy tales. Stories were (and are!) a powerful tool for people to express frustration, communicate experiences, and hope for the future.
I loved hearing some of the tales told in their original forms. As much as I would love to get my hands on the First Edition of the Grimms' Tales, many of the tales were changed even from the original telling to that first edition. Of course there were reasons for that, one being that the brothers often heard multiple variants of the same tale and didn't want to be the book to be too repetitive, so they would create a "master" version.
Dortchen's father is a huge character in the book. He begins as strict and unforgiving and becomes crueler. There were difficult scenes to read that made me truly upset and angry. I think on some level, Herr Wild represents the worst case scenario for Victorian fathers-one that, sadly, wasn't far from the truth in many households. I do wish that Forsyth had included a little more insight into his character and how he became the way he was-villains rarely appear out of nowhere. Very likely he too was beaten as a child, which influenced how he saw his role as a father; or maybe other characters could have shown disapproval if he failed to properly "manage" his wife and children. Males were way better off than the average woman at the time, but there were still strict social rules that dictated what was expected of them at the time. I had never really considered what it would be like to be a male in the Victorian era-to go from being in absolute submission to your parents, to getting married and all of a sudden being in absolute authority of your wife and household-it would naturally be very confusing and easy to turn into a tyrant.
This book, like Bitter Greens, is for a more mature reader. Some of the scenes are very dark, and there is sexual matter. In comparison, "Wild Girl" is less explicit, but there are still some very sad, even scary scenes (I made the mistake of reading this before bed one night-didn't sleep well), and violent descriptions of her brother's experience fighting in the war.
I had read Gyspy's interview with Kate Forsyth at Once Upon a Blog but reread it after I finished the book, since many of the details make more sense to me now. I would highly recommend the interview for another read, I enjoyed it so much more after reading the book myself!
Bonus: Sue Bursztynski interviewed Kate Forsyth back in 2013 to discuss both "Bitter Greens" and "Wild Girl." Thanks for sharing, Sue!