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

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth fantasy book reviewsThe Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

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.

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Audiobook

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.

Publication date: July 7, 2015. One of six sisters, Dortchen Wild lives in the small German kingdom of Hesse-Cassel in the early 19th century. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the handsome but very poor fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm. It is a time of tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hesse-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, Wilhelm and his brothers quietly rebel by preserving old half-forgotten tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small over the land. As Dortchen tells Wilhelm some of the most powerful and compelling stories in what will one day become his and Jacob’s famous fairy tale collection, their love blossoms. But Dortchen’s father will not give his consent for them to marry and war, death, and poverty also conspire to keep the lovers apart. Yet Dortchen is determined to find a way. Evocative and richly-detailed, Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl masterfully captures one young woman’s enduring faith in love and the power of storytelling.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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3 comments

  1. This book sounds amazing, Kate! I’ll make a point of keeping an eye out for it.

  2. Sounds intriguing in story and structure

  3. This sounds very intriguing, Kate. I lived in Germany for 16 months and speak the language fairly well, and I’ve always been interested in fairy tales generally and the Grimms in particular. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this.

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