The Wild Girl
Random House AU
Copy courtesy of the author
Dortchen Wild fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm when she was just 12 years old. The older brother of her friend Lotte, Dortchen looked forward to the times she would see Wilhelm, an 18 year old man, but one who was without an income. That alone made it impossible for Dortchen to dream, even as she grew older and became aware that Wilhelm now loved her too.
In a time of poverty and war as Napoleon sought to invade pretty much all of not only what is now modern-day Europe but Russia as well, Dortchen was one of 6 girls and one boy to an apothecary father and a mother who partook a little too often of the “drops”. Next door lived the Grimm family, just as large but poorer – a deceased father and a lack of jobs meant that the Grimms lived hand to mouth and often had to rely on Dortchen slipping them tidbits to make up their meals. Dortchen and Lotte were the closest of friends and even though her strict father frowned upon her friendship with the Grimms, considering them beneath the Wilds, Dortchen was just as wild by nature as she was by name, regularly sneaking away to spend time with them, often under the cloak of deception.
Wilhelm and his older brother Jakob worked collecting fairy tales and Dortchen provided much of the basis for what would become their book of works. Dortchen knew many stories, some learned from the family cook and housekeeper, Old Marie, others just from folklore. Wilhelm longed to share the tales with the world and he laboured for years collecting them, copying them, polishing them for publication. But it was a bad time with war and the extravagance of Napoleon’s brother who ruled as King rendering everyone poor, barely able to scrape together enough to be adequately fed. With Wilhelm so poor, Dortchen knew her father would never approve of a match between them – not only that but he had a real hostility towards the Grimm brothers and often punished Dortchen severely if he caught her in their company or assumed she had been.
Despite the obstacles in their path, Wilhelm and Dortchen’s love for one another stayed strong throughout the years. They often went long periods without seeing each other, only to come into contact again and have the feelings kindle. Dortchen provided Wilhelm with more stories and the two of them suffered an agony that would last well over a decade before they could truly find their magic ending.
There’s no real way to do justice to this book in a summary. When I read Bitter Greens last year, Kate’s previous book, I was blown away by the amazingly vivid writing and this book is steeped in that same beautiful evocative imagery. The book opens when Dortchen is 12, before Napoleon has invaded and forced the small German kingdom to operate under French rule. Dortchen’s life is full of such joy and hope – she loves collecting the herbs her father uses to make his potions and her knowledge is great. She enjoys her friendship with Lotte and socialising with others in their village and spending time in the kitchen with Old Marie. However the shadow of her father and his discipline and temper hangs over the house like an ugly black cloud. A devoutly religious man, Herr Wild sees sin everywhere except where it seems to fester most and his plans for Dortchen are truly disturbing.
Everyone has heard of the Brother’s Grimm – their fairy tales are famous. Through Dortchen, Wilhelm and brother Jakob learned tales like Snow White, Hansel & Gretel and Six Swans. Dortchen used the tales she had in her memory as a way to spend more time with the man she loved, knowing that was one way that she would hold his undivided attention. Wilhelm came to fall in love with Dortchen too and their agony at not being able to be together was threaded throughout. At one time Dortchen attempted to tell Wilhelm what was happening to her through a story, hoping that he would get the message but the thinly veiled truth beneath the story was to pass him by. It was so easy to love Dortchen, her courage and bravery in the face of such hard times was so admirable. She was struggling between being the good, obedient daughter she had been raised to be and wanting to follow her passion that led her to Wilhelm. There was no doubt she feared the repercussions of being seen with him but so many times she threw caution to the wind and snuck away, even for just a brief time. The two of them had to wait so long to be together that it was almost tortuous – it would be almost 20 years after Dortchen first met him before they would finally get their happiness and believe in the magic of a love that would never die.
The stories within this story are so beautiful – some are recognisable bar a few changes as the fairy tales we were read as children by our parents. Others are so impossibly violent or miserable that they have been altered to be fit for younger ears. This book is rich with vivid history and learning – the lavish expenses of the court of Napoleon’s brother are juxtaposed with the poorness of the people of Hessen-Cassel who have to line up for meager rations and still not end up with enough to feed their family. Young men are snatched up to fight wars they know nothing about in faraway lands at the whim of the Emperor and what was the Holy Roman Empire falls and disintegrates as Napoleon amasses more territory.
Like Bitter Greens last year, it’s so hard to effectively cover all of the story in a review. It’s the addictive quality of the writing that draws you in to a beautiful and well constructed story that leaves you unable to put this book down, even to perform necessary tasks. I finished it at 12.15am in the morning, having read my way through most of the afternoon and a lot of the evening and I loved every second of it. When you pick up a book of this size, it can seem daunting but once I was reading, I never wanted this book to end! Kate Forsyth has taken a name in history and given her a rich and colourful life that leaps off the page and into the reader’s heart.
Book #68 of 2013
The Wild Girl is the 29th novel read & reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2013.
Yesterday I trained it into the city to meet Kate while she was signing books at Dymocks. We had a lovely chat about romance, YA, NA, genre, reviewing the books of people we know, children and lots of other things. She signed my copy of Bitter Greens as my copy of The Wild Girl arrived already signed and I took a pic to mark the occasion.