The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth is an intensely powerful and moving story and not at all what I expected when I first picked this one up. Marketed as the story of the young girl who helps the Grimm brothers gather the stories, that later become Grimms’ Fairy Tales, The Wild Girl is far more than a retelling of old fairy tales. It is in fact the story of a young woman held captive by an abusive and domineering father and a time when daughters were property to be used and traded and not people at all.
Dortchen Wild grew up in the small German Kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in the early Nineteenth century and fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm from the moment she first saw him. But the Grimms were a very poor family and Dortchen’s merchant father had other plans for her. Her father would not have her wasted on a poor scholar with no future.
It is the time of Napoleon Bonaparte and war in all of Europe, the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel is one of the first to fall to the French. Fearful that their history and culture will be crushed under the harsh French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to gather and save all the old tales that had been handed down for generations and publish a book. Young Dortchen knows many of these old stories, such as Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King and Six Swans. She tells these stories to Wilhelm and their time together only increases their love. The ones she does not know, she goes about searching for, bringing the storytellers to Wilhelm for him to write their tales down.
As Dortchen’s father finds out what is going on he reacts swiftly and with great anger. He beats her and as he does, he finds he also desires her. Soon, Dortchen’s father begins to visit her in the dark of the night and rapes and abuses her. His complete control of her keeps Dortchen Wild from ever being a part of Wilhelm Grimm’s life. Wilhelm does not realize what is happening and feels that it is his state of poverty that keeps Dortchen from him. When the book of fairy tales is finally published, Dortchen finds that she is not even mentioned for all the work she has done. She is betrayed by both her father, her family and the man she loves, Wilhelm Grimm. Now Dortchen must fight back, for her sense of self-worth, for her family and for the man she loves. Only life is not like it is in fairy tales and there is no Prince coming to save her.
This is not an easy book to read. The depravity and the oppression of the people and women who suffer under it, will anger and disgust you. The Grimms themselves pay a small part in this book. They are always there but never have a real impact besides being the love that is denied for so long. Wilhelm is the light at the end of the tunnel for Dortchen, the prize that turns out to be even more pain for her. The passage in the book where Dortchen is aware that the book of fairy tales has been published and that she is not mentioned in it is as painful as the beatings and rapes she has received from her father. She rushes to confront Wilhelm angrily. You can feel her angst in the reading, the lack of appreciation or recognition from the man she loves, in her heart simply verifies all the horrors her father has inflicted upon her.
She is living the horror of the original fairy tales. The original stories before they were edited and converted into children tales. This is her story of survival and triumph and heartbreak.
This is a hard read. But the prose and the tale are very well told and it should be read. It should be acknowledged and spoken about. It is a tale of strength and fortitude when all around you the world is breaking apart. It is simply, a really good book.