Friday, February 26, 2016

The Wild Girl: A moving novel about the literary history of fairy tales

Kate Forsyth’s book, The Wild Girl, was published in Australia in 2013 but has recently been released in the United States in both hardback, Kindle, and audio versions. It tells the story of an unsung hero of the history of fairy-tales: Dortchen Wild, the sweetheart and eventual wife of Wilhelm Grimm and the origin of many of the Grimm’s tales.

Dortchen grows up with six sisters and an invalid mother under the authoritarian rule of her apothecary father, Herr Wild, near Hesse-Kassel (part of what is known today as Germany). Their next-door neighbors, the Grimms, fascinate Dortchen, who befriends the youngest Grimm, Lotte. At a very young age, Dortchen develops a crush on Lotte’s older brother, Wilhelm, who has returned from university. She assists Wilhelm and his brother, Jacob, as they work on their project to collect German folktales. Along the way, Dortchen and Wilhelm fall in love (this isn’t a spoiler, as you learn about their relationship in the first chapter). But war, poverty, and family trauma keeps them apart, even as the stories they share draw them closer together.

Forsyth incorporates a lot of historical research into The Wild Girl, describing daily German life as well as providing the larger context of the Napoleonic wars. What I found most fascinating was the ways the Grimms researched and wrote their story collections. Fairy-tale nerds like me will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at how 19th century fairy-tale scholarship worked — and how it sometimes didn’t work, as we see when Jacob and Wilhelm’s collections do not initially sell. And I am grateful to Forsyth for another book that draws attention to the unknown female storytellers of these famous tales. Her book Bitter Greens performs this task for the women behind the “Rapunzel” tale; in The Wild Girl, we have Dortchen Wild’s legacy as a consummate storyteller unearthed and preserved. That alone is reason to celebrate this book.

But Forsyth’s own storytelling is beautiful and heartbreaking on its own. Reading The Wild Girl was, at times, hard to continue because of what a painful story Forsyth has pieced together — some details imagined, I’m sure — for Dortchen. I had to take a couple of breaks from the book because of how sad Dortchen’s life became. Some of her experiences, particularly those with her father, are visceral and traumatic. But Forsyth manages to weave them together with the fairy tales (probably worthy of trigger warnings themselves) that Dortchen tells Wilhelm, creating a frame narrative in which Dortchen expresses her own grief and horror through her storytelling. I was reminded again of Bitter Greens, and the ways in which the women claim their own voices in the face of oppression and abuse.

In the face of Dortchen’s suffering, I broke down and wept when Wilhelm presented her with a new copy of the Grimm collection. He has re-written the tale “All Kinds of Fur” to shape it into a joyful tale rather than a horrific one. He tells her that “the whole reason for telling the fairy tales is to awaken the heart. To help people believe that misfortune can be overcome and evil can be conquered.” In The Wild Girl, Forsyth has created a powerful novel espousing the idea that stories can bring hope and healing.

The audiobook was read by Kate Reading, whom I know best as the female narrator of THE WHEEL OF TIME series. Her voice, warm and cultured, conveyed Dortchen’s vulnerability perfectly, while also capturing the gravitas of other characters.

*This review first appeared on, where I gave the book 4 stars.

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