Dortchen Wild fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm the first time she saw him.
Growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in early Nineteenth century, Dortchen Wild is irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the young and handsome fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm.
It is a time of War, tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hessen-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to save old tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small all over the land.
Dortchen knows many beautiful old stories, such as 'Hansel and Gretel', 'The Frog King' and 'Six Swans'. As she tells them to Wilhelm, their love blossoms. Yet the Grimm family is desperately poor, and Dortchen's father has other plans for his daughter. Marriage is an impossible dream.
Dortchen can only hope that happy endings are not just the stuff of fairy tales.
I'd been waiting for so long to read this book, and it hooked me from page one. In fact, the prologue had me itching to turn to the last page to see how it ended, but I resisted! The story has an enchanting fairy-tale quality from the very beginning as we meet young Dortchen Wild, a precocious, starry-eyed, imaginative girl who revels in the beauty of nature and the transcendent quality of folk tales. The fifth of six girls born to a frail mother and an overbearing father, hers is not a life of ease, but she sees the good in everything and determines to make the most of what life has to offer her.
She becomes fast friends with Lotte, the only girl out of six children in the Grimm family, who has just moved into the house across the alley, and begins to spend all of her free time with the poor yet loving family. Secretly worshiping the scholarly Wilhelm, the second oldest brother, she endeavors to help him and the oldest, Jakob, as they compile a collection of old tales in the hopes of finding fame and fortune with its publication. Dortchen shines under their attention, surrounded by a circle of friends sharing stories and laughter, even though her generous nature in wanting to help her poor neighbors often lands her in trouble with her father.
But their idyllic existence comes to an end with the looming threat of war. Quickly taken over and having Napoleon's frivolous younger brother Jerome forced on them as king, the tiny state of Hesse-Cassel finds itself in the middle of Napoleon's quest for European domination, suffering the deprivation of blockades, the strain of hosting an army, and the devastation of sending their men off to a disastrous invasion of Russia. As the family struggles to stay afloat, Dortchen's father becomes increasingly more abusive, and her prospects for a happy future dwindle. Forbidden from contact with the Grimms, considered too poor and bohemian by her father, she can only watch from afar as Wilhelm and his siblings move on without her.
The infectious, childlike wonder with which she viewed the world slowly begins to fade, and out of all the tragedies to befall poor Dortchen, this was perhaps the most heartbreaking. To watch a bright and sunny girl transition into a wary young woman and then a disillusioned and resigned adult was almost more than I could bear. Though there are several moments in Dortchen's life that are extremely hard to read, I mourned the loss of her innocence and hopefulness most of all. But the death of her father finally brings about a new chance at the life she's always dreamed of, though it takes time for her broken spirit to heal and reach for happiness.
Dortchen is a heroine every reader will root for, and the sharing of old stories is every bit as entrancing as one would expect. The depiction of Hesse-Cassel against the backdrop of Napoleon's war is intimate and immersive--a unique setting for historical fiction, and I drank in every detail--and the love story between Dortchen and Wilhelm is itself the stuff of fairy tales. For the longest time I was sure this would be a five-star read for me, but the rapid passage of many years with gaps in time in the last quarter of the book combined with Dortchen's long separation from Wilhelm felt a little off to me. I can't quite put my finger on why my sense of wonder and enchantment faded, but it was restored by the uplifting ending and the lovely quote from Wilhelm about Dortchen that Ms. Forsyth included in her author's note. Her extensive research of folk tales and the way she weaves them into the very fabric of the novel is amazing. Lovers of history, fairy tales, and romance should find much to admire in this beautiful and deserving novel about the little-known Wild girl and her influence on the Brothers Grimm.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5