Sep 29, 2009

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy

Poland, 1943. A Jewish family is trying to escape the Nazis. With the enemy close on their heels, they drive through a forest on a stolen motorbike. The stepmother suggests that leaving the children behind is the only way to give them all a chance of survival, and so it is done. The children are left in the forest – they’re told to forget their Jewish names, to call themselves Hansel and Gretel instead, and to find food and shelter. Together, they make their way to a cottage, where an old woman everyone calls a witch lives alone.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel uses the fairy tale’s original darkness and its unsettling nature to tell a story of survival under the direst circumstances. In many ways, it doesn’t read like a fairy tale—not because it’s serious or dark, as fairy tales are serious and uncomfortable and dark, but because it doesn’t have that same kind of fairy tale mood that a book like, say, Tender Morsels does.

But on the other hand, the familiar elements are all there: the breadcrumbs, the witch’s cottage, the cage, the big oven where a child would fit. And Bialowieza Forest, where the story is set, most definitely feels like a fairy tale forest. “Hansel and Gretel” is about abandonment and hunger and loneliness and death, and in many ways so is this story. The darkness is all there, but its sources are intelligently turned around. The Witch, an old woman named Magda, is a protector rather than a threat. And by doing the unthinkable and abandoning the children, their stepmother saves their lives. Louise Murphy says in an interview at the end of my edition of the book that one of her goals was to take two kinds of women who have always been demonized in stories—stepmothers and older women—and to present them under a different and more human light. She does that perfectly, and I love her for it.

But The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is not just about two Jewish children hiding from the Nazis in a cottage in a forest. It’s also about the Polish village near which Magda lives and all its inhabitants; it’s about German occupation and how ordinary people deal with it; it’s about a group of Partisans who also live in the forest and what they do to fight back—and at what cost; it's about cultural identity and memory and fear.

But what really makes this book is the characterization. The Nazis occupying the village of Piaski are, naturally enough, not presented sympathetically. But they're complex enough to be human beings rather than monsters. This is something I always value in books about Holocaust, as I think it's important to remember that yes, it was people who did these things. And then there's Magda, Nelka, Telek, the village's children. I grew to care about each and every one of the main characters, and my heart was in my hands for them the whole time. All along I knew I should know better than to expect a happy ending from a Holocaust story, but it’s only human to hope against hope, and that's part of what gives the book its power. I won’t tell you how things end, but I’ll say that it’s neither unrealistically nor on an entirely bleak note. There’s a whole lot of tragedy, but also a small miracle or two.

I especially loved the fact that The True Story of Hansel and Gretel explored sides of WW2 that I hadn’t read about before: life in an ordinary and somewhat remote Polish village, the activities of Partisan groups, the persecution of the Roma people. No book about the Holocaust can ever tell the whole story, and the truth is that making sense of what happened is probably something nobody will ever be able to do. But the reason why I keep reading these books is because I want to know what it felt like to live through a period so unthinkably dark. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel gives me a glimpse of that.

Other opinions: Bookworms Dinner, Books’N’Border Collies, Book Addiction, Everyday Reads, Maw Books, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Random Wonder

(Did I miss yours?)

45 comments:

Lezlie said...

Excellent review. This was such a great books! Thanks for the link!

Lezlie

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think it's always good to show the complexity of both sides so people don't think these are aberrant types that couldn't exist anymore.

Paperback Reader said...

Perfect timing! I received a copy of this from Teresa of Shelf Love at the weekend; I won her BBAW contest for a book of my choice learned about from a blogger and the blogger was you. I am excited about reading this (not looking forward to it of course as I am sure it will be emotionally draining but definitely with expectations). I will engage with the themes and points you have raised once I have read it.

Amanda said...

I've heard of this! I can't remember where, but I know this one and it sounds really good. Normally I avoid holocaust books - too much pain - but I really want to read this one.

Cara Powers said...

That was a very moving review, Nymeth. Good job.

Aimee said...

I'm starting to fear coming to this blog...i always walk away with my head crazed with dreams of books that I NEED - MUST..HAVE...NOW

Debi said...

I've had this one on my wish list for a while now, but you just moved it to the top. Actually, I wasn't really sure what to think of this book before...I thought the whole concept was very intriguing, but I also feared that it could really go awry. I can tell by your exquisite review that my fears weren't realized. I really, really want to read this!!!

Nicola said...

I wrote this down on my tbr list some time ago. Thanks for reminding me about it! I'll have to write it down again so I get to it sooner than later.

heatherlo said...

What an awesome review, Nymeth! I really liked this one. I'm so glad you did too!

verbatim said...

I'm going to add this one to my TBR pile based on your review. I seldom read about the Holocaust because I find it so disturbing. I will only read something that offers a new perspective, and this sounds like it does. I think it's interesting that it's set in the Bialowieza Forest, too, which I first learned about in Zookeeper's wife. The Nazis found animals there similar to what they considered "pure" Arian animals that were extinct -- the tarpan horse, etc. -- which they hoped to resurrect through selective breeding. Seems like a real "fairy-tale" setting, in the creepiest sense of the word.

Sandy Nawrot said...

This really was an excellent book. A clever twist on the old story (although I think the "twist" lost its traction towards the end), allowing us to see all sides of the story, and giving us glimmers of hope at the end. It would definitely be in my top 10 WWII books.

GMR said...

Great review! We've been seeing a lot of fairytale remakes recently...it seems it's time for them to get a makeover according to many people. When you see them, you never really know what to think. Will it be true to the tale you've heard so many times before or will they explore something new for better or worse? This one seems to do a little of both. I may need to add this one to my "must seek out" list.

Iliana said...

I liked what you said about the writer trying to explore the women characters in different light. I think it's so easy for writers to fall into a cliche of the wicked stepmother, etc. So that's really interesting.

This book sounds like a must read!

Joanne said...

This sounds very interesting, I also liked the comment about the two types of women normally portrayed as "evil" being shown in a different way.

Jeane said...

I started thinking of Jane Yolen's Briar Rose as I read through your review. Different kind of telling, but also putting a fairy tale into a modern and Holocaust setting. It sounds like such a good book, if dark. I like the idea of the women usually portrayed as evil being the ones who save the children.

Court said...

You've totally made me want to read this. Sounds awesome.

ds said...

Wow. Quite a lot going on here. Guess it is time to take the head out of the sand regarding books on the Holocaust (I mean, I've read a few, but...). This one will be added to that list. Thank you.

Vivienne said...

It sounds like a fantastic book. I love the idea of it. I like the idea of reading this interpretation of Hansel and Gretel. On my list it goes.

Bookfool said...

I love reading Holocaust books for similar reasons. I don't think we can possibly learn from such a dark time without immersing ourselves in it and truly understanding the horror.

This is a book I hadn't heard of, in spite of all the reviews you linked to. I haven't been doing a lot of blog-hopping, though, since it's our last swim season (just three more meets and we're done forever, sob). I'm going to add this one to my wish list. It sounds amazing.

Jodie said...

Honestly you have to stop reading such great sounding books my TBR notebook is getting all filled up!

Jenny said...

I've heard of this but had no idea what it was about. Sounds chilling and wonderful - so much so that I'm considering making an exception in my break-from-serious-books just for this one.

Nely said...

This sounds so good. I had never even heard of it before now. Getting a copy stat. :D

♥Nely

Lenore said...

I would love to visit that forest. We went to a national park in Poland (near German and Czech borders) that was fantastic.

bermudaonion said...

Oh wow, that sounds like a fantastic, unique story!

carolsnotebook said...

Wonderful review. I love that the "evil" women of the original story are the children's protectors in this retelling.

Staci said...

I just requested this book from the library yesterday and then noticed your review!! Sounds like a well-written novel.

She said...

Wow! Sounds amazing. Sounds like a different twist to many of the other WWII/Holocaust books. :(

Kailana said...

I've wanted to read this for a while! I wish the library had it!

Beth F said...

I've had this one on my radar for a while now, but I always seem to push WWII books to the back of the shelf or bottom of the pile.

You're right that the plight of the Roma people is often overlooked in WWII books. Thanks for reminding me about this book.

Jenners said...

This sounds so fascinating ... I love the twist the author used by not demonizing the two women and playing with story elements that are so familiar but used in a new way. Fantastic review!

Terri B. said...

I look forward to reading this one. I purchased it recently. I went ahead and read your review even though I haven't gotten to the book yet. You are pretty careful not to give out spoilers, and when you do you let us know ahead of time
(thank you!). Nice review! If I didn't already have it on my list, your review would have convinced me to put it there.

Megan said...

Great review! I've been so eager to read your review of this, and I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed it. This one definitely had something special for me. It's one of those books that I often find myself talking up, and I'm always thrilled when people I love love the books that I love. ;-)

I think you're absolutely right that Murphy makes all of her characters very human, even the ones that we are not supposed to like, and I think that's excellent because it stands to really deepen our understanding of the things that happened, if such things can really be understood. I loved how it cleverly turned the Hansel and Gretel story on its ear, and while it is so sad like Holocaust stories are, there seemed to be a sort of haunting dark beauty to it and a nice kernel of hope to cling to once all was said and done.

Er - okay, I think I'm ready to stop with the wordy run-on sentences that I'm trying to use to mask what is really my shameless gushing. ;-)

joanna said...

I've been wanting to read this for soooo long. The idea reminds me of Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, which I loved. Being Polish, I tend to internalise these kinds of books more than I should so I need to space the out more so that I can get some nightmare-free sleep!

farmlanebooks said...

I've been wanting to read this ever since I read Sandy's review. I'm keeping my eye out for a copy as I'm sure I'll enjoy (not sure that is the right word!) it!

Diane said...

Every time I hit a used book sale I hope to find this gem. Excellent review. Most everyone I know has loved it.

Rebecca Reid said...

It sounds so *beautiful*. I'd heard of it before, but you're really convinced me I need to pick it up. What a way to look at WWII.

Nymeth said...

Lezlie, you're welcome!

Jill: Exactly!

Claire: Perfect timing indeed! I can't wait to hear what you think. It was emotionally draining, yes, but I had trouble putting it down.

Amanda: I completely understand avoiding them!

Cara, thank you for the kind words!

Aimee: lol! I know the feeling :P

Debi: It could have gone awry easily, but Murphy handled it so well!

Nicole, you're welcome! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Heather: It was such a great book!

Verbatim: Like I told Amanda, I really understand avoiding Holocaust literature. This one was disturbing too, and heartbreaking, but I really loved that it offered me a new perspective. After I finished it I spent a long time reading about Bialowieza online and looking at pictures. Now I want to visit!

Sandy: I know what you mean - there was something about the final 60 pages or so that didn't work quite as well as the rest of the book. Since you've read so much on the topic, what would you say your other favourites are?

GMR: What fascinates me about fairy tales is that there is no "true" version. Some are more well-known than others, but they have been reworked so often that we can no longer tell how the stories began. To me, that adds to their appeal!

Iliana: It is easy, yes. I'm glad she made an effort to avoid the stereotypes.

Joanne: I'd have been so disappointed if she hadn't done that, to be honest :P

Jeane: I can see why it reminded you of Briar Rose - which I also loved!

Court, I hope you enjoy it!

ds: I definitely understand preferring not to read them. I really do. But as Megan said in her comment, there's beauty here too.

Vivienne: I especially loved how the expected plot points were all there, yet their meaning was completely different.

Nymeth said...

Nancy: Awww...enjoy those last three meets! *hug*

Jodie: I'll try :P

Jenny: I think it's worth an exception!

Nely: I'm happy to be bringing it to more people's attention!

Lenore: I'd love to as well! It sounds like such an amazing place. I spent such a long time looking at pictures online.

Kathy: The way she handled it did make it unique.

Carol: Thank you! I loved that too.

Staci, I look forward to your thoughts!

She: It is different, but at the same time the horror is familiar :(

Kelly: That's such a pity it doesn't!

Beth: Magda, the woman who takes the children in, had a Roma grandmother, and she lives in fear that someone in the village will blurt that out and get her killed. I think this was the first WWII book I read that included something like this.

Jenners: I REALLY loved that she did that. And thank you!

Terri B: I hate spoilers, so I always try hard to avoid them :P I can't wait to hear what you think!

Megan: I love your gushing! I completely agree with you about the dark, haunting beauty that this story has. And I love it when people I love love books I love too :D (Most uses of love in a sentence ever?)

Joanna: I can imagine how they're even harder to read for you :( The good news about this one is that there's no Polish, so no chances of language mistakes :P

Jackie: Enjoy might not be the best word, but it's an amazing
book!

Diane, I hope you manage to find it!

Rebecca: It is beautiful! Megan's comment was spot on.

Zibilee said...

I have read a lot of books on the topic of the WWII and I have sort of felt a little burnt out on them. But this sounds different, and like something that would really interest me. I like the angle of the not so evil witch and step-mother, it seems like a novel concept and one I haven't seen around much. I have added this to my ever growing wish list, but am placing it almost at the top because I'd like to read this sooner rather than later. Great review, you gave me a lot to think about.

softdrink said...

Oh my. This looks like a must read.

Sheila (bookjourney) said...

I really like the sound of this... thanks for posting it!

Melody said...

I remember I bought this book because of your mention, Nymeth! I'm glad you enjoyed it! Now I can't wait to read it! ;)

Gwendolyn said...

This is exactly the kind of book I will enjoy. I will look it up asap. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Fyrefly said...

I'd never heard of this book, but it sounds right up my alley, as I am a big ol' sucker for dark fairytale retellings. Off to the wishlist!

Anna said...

What a beautifully written review! I've been wanting to read this one for a while. It sounds really, really good. I'm assuming it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations. :)

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Post a Comment

Thank you so much for commenting - I do my best to reply to comments, but life conspires against it more and more often these days. But even when I don't get around to replying, every comment is read and very much appreciated.

To non-blogger users: I've been told that OpenID comments have been giving people errors most of the time, for which I really, really apologise. But you could always use the name/URL option instead, which seems to work just fine.

Thank you for reading!