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Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth. Sydney, Random House Australia, 2013

There must be something in the air here in Australia. There are all these women writing amazing fiction with fairy tale themes. I can think of four without any trouble: Sophie Masson, author of several YA novels based on such folk tales as Tattercoats, Sleeping Beauty and, most recently,"Aschenputtel", the German version of Cinderella. Juliet Marillier, author of the Sevenwaters series that began with Daughter Of The Forest(The Wild Swans) and Heart's Blood(Beauty And The Beast). Margo Lanagan, with Tender Morsels (Snow White And Rose Red) and, of course, Sea Hearts, which is on the Stella short list, two sections of the Aurealises and the Ditmars. In the last year there has been the Specusphere anthology, Mythic Resonance, which had folk tale-inspired stories both by women and men.

And there's now Kate Forsyth, best known for her children's books, who has written two novels in a row on fairy tale themes. Bitter Greens (on both the Aurealis and Ditmars list this year)  was about the young woman who wrote a version of the Rapunzel story back in the seventeenth century, intertwined with the Rapunzel tale itself. That one was historical fantasy; The Wild Girl is straight historical fiction centred around those collectors of tales, the Brothers Grimm, as seen by the girl next door, Dortchen Wild, who would eventually marry one of them and told them about a quarter of the stories in their collection. But the fairy tales are there anyway, again intertwined with the main story, though not in exactly the same way as in Bitter Greens. There are quotes from the stories Dortchen Wild told Wilhelm Grimm, caerfully connected with whatever is happening in that part of the novel.

Dortchen Wild, daughter of an apothecary and no mean herbalist herself, falls in love with Wilhelm Grimm when she is just twelve and he a few years older. He is the big brother of her best friend Lotte, kind and handsome and probably doesn't know she exists, except as someone who knows many of the folk tales he and his brother Jakob are collecting.

But the years go by. Napoleon invades. The small German country of Hesse become the kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by Napoleon's extravagant and heedless younger brother, Jerome. The Grimms and Dortchen's family have a lot more to worry about than a romance that might or might not happen. And Dortchen has been abused horribly by her father, one of the nastier characters I have come across in fiction recently.

This is a wonderful piece of historical fiction. It is based on an idea expressed by Valerie Paradiz in Clever Maids:The Secret History Of The Grimm Fairy Tales, that the Grimm brothers got their stories, not from illiterate peasants and old grannies at the spinning wheel, but from middle class, educated young women of their acquaintance, starting with the girl next door.

As with  all good historical fiction, history has been interpreted. There will always be some things we don't know, and when that happens, the author has to pull together the facts we do know and come to a conclusion. This has been done very well, so that I read it and thought,"Yes, this could really be how it happened." The author has taken only a few minor bits of license, which she mentions in her afterword, but she has done it intelligently. She has researched the period and the people thoroughly and made it all believable. It's strange, reading it, to imagine that all this was going on while the Regency was happening in England and Jane Austen was writing gentle, witty romances.

I hadnt realised that the first edition of the Grimm stories was a flop. Live and learn!

 Another thing: I always thought the Grimm stories were nastier and more violent than their counterparts in other countries, but this isn't always the case. While reading The Wild Girl I was comparing Grimm stories with those of Perrault and others. Sleeping Beauty in Grimm ends with the princess and her prince wandering off happily into the sunset; the French Perrault story doesn't and with the princess awakening. She has a monster for a mother-in-law - literally! One who tries to eat her and her children. Aschenputtel has some gruesome bits, but at least Grimm's Cinderella isn't a murderer like her Italian counterpart, Cenerentola, whom I discovered on Sur La Lune Fairy Tales. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is nastier in the French version.

Whether you love fairy tales or historical fiction or romance, there is something for you in The Wild Girl.

Available now in all good bookshops in Australia or you can buy it online here. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can get it in the iBooks store.

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