I want you to know that I’m unsure of everything I’ve written here, but it had to be done.
Putting tree books aside (The Giving Tree, The Lorax, Pocahontas) the best stories of childhood are myths and fairytales. Most little girls grow up with dreams of princess crowns gleaming in the castle of their backyard and most little boys carry swords and special powers in their holsters. I wish I could pinpoint exactly where it began for me. Was I in a crib when I realized I had golden locks, or pondered the word “happy.”
I can remember at twelve thinking goosebumps were a sign that my grandfather was with me. This is more of me being a superstitious child, but when did I realize that souls come back? This was all the least of my worries though…
Let’s run through my list:
I’ve had these fears for as far back as I can remember. I must have tortured myself laying awake in the dark and staring into the bathroom mirror across the hall just waiting for something ominous. At thirteen, you wouldn’t be able to find me in the bed sheets. I would cocoon myself, head and all, under the spread. It got to where my mother would be so nervous I’d stop breathing, that she’d remove the covers from my face after I fell asleep. She’d also have to tell me that no robbers would attack our house because they would be caught far more easily with the street light shining through my bedroom window.
Fairytales, horror stories, myths, urban legends, oral traditions, epics; all of these have been in our history for centuries. I might dare to say that everything told resonates from these voices, these campfire treasures, these men in sturdy boots carrying brides to the clutches of witches. It’s like the thirteen year olds who think everything they know about love comes from Disney. I assumed entering high school that finding my sweetheart would be simple. I didn’t understand the notion that men could be less than their hero tradition. We grow up with these morals and these pro/con lists of what’s good, and what’s bad without ever really realizing they’re incorrect until the moment of mistake.
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy is the story when those pro/con lists don’t work. It’s the story of the forgotten and lost. We all say, “that would never happen,” and yet today we have candidates for president who want to take away public education. DEAR LORD.
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is the story of Nazi Germany. In my mind it should replace Anne Frank for high school reading lists. At this point, I’m not sure my generation even realizes the horror of the one before us. This morning my father was reading the news and said, “40% of women in the US have never been married” and I immediately thought, this is the baby boom – lovers died in wars and the women waiting on them stayed alone for the rest of their lives. My generation (I hate speaking in generalizations but I think I’m just going to do it) has forgotten that people who thought they were getting into the bath, finally drowning their lice, were gassed naked in chambers. We forget that a whole population of Jewish children were wiped out in camps, by bullets to the head, and the idea that they were a subculture, less than human.
I think, if anything, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel awakened in me the notion that things happen that are beyond our control, yes, but more things happen that we choose not to control because we’re weak, or we’re scared, or we’re alone in our ideas, or we watch the man without listening to his words. Hitler’s greatest power was language and he used it point perfectly to discard whole worlds of people. And finally, FINALLY, Louise Murphy has written a book that puts the real in front of us.
I grew up thinking Jews died, it was the holocaust, and some survived living in attics. I didn’t grow up thinking people were hanged for stealing food after living on one potato a day for a whole family, or that pre-pubescent girls could be penetrated in the cold woods of their backyards. I didn’t think a wheelchair meant death, or singing too loud in public meant beatings. However, in Nazi Germany it did.
And I know, I know this book is a work of fiction. But sometimes fiction tells us more about ourselves, and our reality than the world is willing to tell.
I want you to read this book because I don’t want you to forget what happened. I also want you to read this book because it’s a damn good book and the writing is beautiful.
Louise Murphy writes about Nazi Germany using the classic fairytale Hansel and Gretel. Hansel and Gretel is the story of two children left in the woods by an evil stepmother. They happen on a witch’s house made of candy where she takes them in and feeds them until actually trying to eat them without success. That’s the shortest synopsis I think I could have written. In Murphy’s fairytale, Hansel and Gretel are forced into the woods for being Jews and taken in by the village “witch,” Magda, who winds up being my favorite character in the entire tale. While Murphy uses the fairytale in such a seamless way that it isn’t over done, it still has the classic elements like the bread crumbs, and the oven. Honestly, while reading, I didn’t even realize at what points the fairytale motifs were shining through and what points the tale was just alive on its own accord.
This tale is dark, and compelling. While you’re horrified at the behaviors of grown men and women, you’re also horrified by the culture, and the unexplainable moments. For instance, rather than raping a character, a Nazi guard takes blood transfers from her starving body to make him feel more refreshed. It’s these tidbits that are almost more dark than the ones meant to be devastating. The constant humming of a character who has been traumatized is more haunting than the actual traumatizing moment. It’s the left over resonance that really makes Murphy’s story unbelievable. I feel the residue leaking through as I type this because I’m almost unsure of what to say, where I’m going, how I’m going to fight for this book to be read by everyone I know.
I love fiction because it makes you look at your world differently. It makes you closer to those around you; you’re survivors, you’re living, you breathe air out of the same atmosphere, and yet you’re more alone than ever while reading. I love fiction that let’s you do both, that let’s you share its story with others and I want to do this with all of you. I want to know how you feel when the woods become dark, and Gretel’s legs are turning blue from their bareness against an iced log. I want to know how the Brown Sister’s fantasies make you seize up in your chest and lungs. I want to see where you break, and the words become everything and nothing. I want you to know that in a way love and survival are the same idea.
I’m still scared of everything, but I’m comforted by the fact that love is the only idea worth keeping.
1955 film by Lotte Reiniger of Hansel and Gretel
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.