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*****= An all-time favorite
****The True Story of Hansel and Gretel
A Novel of War and Survival
by Louise Murphy
Reviewed February 23, 2005.
Penguin Books, New York, 2003. 297 pages.
Available as a USAFE Libraries’ Book Club in a Box selection.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#5, Literary Fiction)
The USAFE Libraries’ Book Club in a Box is a popular new program in which a book club can check out a boxful of several copies of a book, along with discussion questions and everything you need to have a successful book club. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is a powerful book with many possible topics of discussion.
If I were rating books solely on their merit and the strength of the writing, there is no question that I would give The True Story of Hansel and Gretel five stars. The writing is magnificent, and the story is powerfully moving. As it is, I rate books by how much I enjoy reading them. Five-star books are those I think will be among my favorite books ever, and which I will want to come back to again and again. This book is a novel of war, and although it is a wonderful book, the horrors of war which it portrays make me doubtful that I will want to read it again. Still, I am glad I have read it, and know that the story will resonate in my mind for years to come.
The story opens with a Jewish man and his wife in eastern Poland fleeing from the Nazis on a motorcycle. His two children are hiding in the sidecar. The Nazis don’t know about the children. If they stop and try to flee with the girl and boy, they will surely be caught. The stepmother insists that the father stop on a curve and let out the children to hide in the forest. She tells them they must forget their Jewish names and be Hansel and Gretel. Then the parents travel on, knowing the Nazis will continue to follow them, and the children have a chance of escape.
The children find their way to the cottage of Magda, who is known in the nearby village as a witch because of her skill with herbs. She takes in the starving children and tries to fatten them up, make them healthy, and pass them off as Poles. Meanwhile, the father and stepmother fall in with a group of resistance fighters. They know the Russians are driving the Germans back, but can they hold out long enough?
This is a novel about the power of love. “There is much to love, and that love is what we are left with. When the bombs stop dropping, and the camps fall back to the earth and decay, and we are done killing each other, that is what we must hold. We can never let the world take our memories of love away, and if there are no memories, we must invent love all over again.”
It is a novel of love, yet it is full of hateful and horrible things before love has any triumph. Although I’ve read much about World War II, this book presented some horrors which I had never begun to imagine. Still, this book is well worth reading, for in the end love does transcend the hate, and we’re left with a message of hope.
All the elements of the dark and scary fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel” are present in this book. Magda even puts Gretel in an old pigeon cage when she is sick to keep her from thrashing and falling off the bed. However, a much different construction is put on actions, especially those of the stepmother and the witch. Both act to save the children, and the scary parts of the tale do not come from them, but from the evil residing in the hearts of men in the village and in the forest.
This is a disturbing novel, but a magnificent achievement that is well worth reading.
Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund. All