About a book that I cannot get out of my head.
I just finished reading this last night and I am still struggling to collect my thoughts on it. I did attempt to write down my feelings immediately after finishing, but the result was a long and rambling collection of words, mostly dealing with my inability to accept that I had finished the book, and something which I will not subject anyone to on this page. When I selected this book at the library, I thought I was in for a classic re-imagining of fairytales, perhaps with flecks of historical significance here or there. I expected some darkness and maybe some sadness, but what I did not expect was a deeply disturbing account of a life taken for granted, that would cut me to the core.
I don't know exactly what it is yet about The Wild Girl that has affected me more than any book has in a very, very long time. Perhaps it is the voice that Kate Forsyth has given to Dortchen Wild - a young girl growing up in Hessen-Cassel (now Kassel, in Germany) during the Napoleonic Wars. In her world, Dortchen is undervalued and underestimated and yet out of the pages her deepest thoughts ring clear as a bell. Reading the book is comparable only to dreaming, an intense barrage of experiences and emotions that has you rooting for the characters as if they were your very own friends, as if they were real.
The catch with this novel is that they were real. Henriette Dorothea Wild (Dortchen) grew up during the early 19th century. Hers was a world that was dark and turbulent, on the cusp of political and social change, where the role of a woman was still to be a submissive and obedient possession (first of her father and then of her husband).
Out of this world came Dortchen, who is portrayed in the story as the epitome of humility and kindness, and who has a deep love for the old folk tales of her homeland, many of which she is known to have told to her neighbor, the literal boy-next-door, Wilhelm Grimm. This is, of course, the famous Wilhelm of the Brother's Grimm and the realty of these interactions, as well as an enduring love between Dortchen and Wilhelm is well documented by historians. What is less available, however, is who Dortchen was, outside of her relationship with Wilhelm.
That is what Forsyth tackles in this book and she does so with the dedication of a person writing about a beloved relative. Although the novel is a work of fiction, a vivid truth burns throughout. You can see it in the way she winds stories and storytelling into the narrative, just as these tales were connected with life at the time. She also brings to light many of the darker aspects of life in the 19th century, many of which are still issues today - issues of poverty and abuse, and of the violent realities of war. Some of this is fact, other parts are speculation, but the speculation is not without basis and in many ways young Dortchen is a representative for all of the nameless, faceless women and children who were (or still are) subjected to a life of cruelty and oppression. Kate Forsyth's research into a historical figure about which so little is known took her more than five years and the result is a "first-hand" account of life and love that leaves the reader reeling.
If you want to research the relationship between Dorothea Wild and Wilhelm Grimm yourself, be my guest. I will not ruin the ending for you here. I knew little about the historical facts before reading the book and I am glad that I was able to restrain myself from looking into them, because it meant that while reading I was truly along for the ride. I felt every moment of bliss and heartache as keenly as if it were happening to me, or at least to someone that I know, my emotions manifesting physically at times, in a way that I have never experienced before.
Of course I would recommend this book to anyone - as couldn't we all benefit from a reminder that there is always more to the story than what can be seen on the cover? I would definitely recommend this, however, to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and, especially, if you enjoy hearing from the voices of women, which are often lost and underrepresented in history. I can tell you that Dortchen's voice, though perhaps not entirely accurate, strikes deep into the heart of the reader. I have been able to think of little else for the last 48 hours, and I expect that Dortchen will be in my dreams for many nights to come.
If you want to hear more about the book from the author's mouth, go HERE.
For reader reviews start HERE.