Dortchen Wild falls in love with Wilhelm Grimm, the handsome older brother of her best friend, the moment she meets him – but she’s only twelve years old. As she grows, her love only deepens, and soon Wilhelm returns her interest, particularly when he hears about the folk tales that she’s learned from Old Marie, the Wild family’s nurse. Wilhelm and his older brother Jakob have been collecting old German folk tales with the hope of eventually getting them published and making their fortune. Wilhelm and Dortchen begin meeting in secret, as Dortchen’s forbidding father will not hear of the pair associating, and fall in love.
This was an incredible book. It sounded interesting to start with – who doesn’t want to read fiction about the love life of one of the Brothers Grimm? – and completely lived up to that promise. I loved Dortchen and I found her story completely compelling. She starts out as a spirited young girl, the “wild girl” of the book’s title, who loves the forest and spending time with her friend and adores Wilhelm beyond reason. As she grows older, her father’s unwillingness to let her go, even as her sisters marry, and some events I won’t spoil start to shrink her spirit. She ends up with ridiculously difficult hardships to surmount, with some passages so agonizing that I actually had to look on Wikipedia to find out what was going to happen in Dortchen’s life because I couldn’t bear the suspense.
Life isn’t easy for anyone in this period. Living in the Holy Roman Empire during the Napoleonic wars, the town of Cassel is taken again and again as Napoleon and then the Russians battle for control. Times are hard, food is scarce, and war seems never-ending, sometimes right on the family’s front steps. Every young man is at risk of going to war. Almost every family lives on the edge.
On a personal level, the book handles some very tough issues, like what happens between Dortchen and her father. This part of the book is entirely speculation on the author’s behalf, which she admits; it’s known that Dortchen and Wilhelm fell in love at a certain point but then spent unexplained years without getting married. The author attempts to imagine what might have happened to cause this huge gap, and this certainly works within the context of the story. It also provides an insight into the very difficult life of a girl who is abused in this way, systematically and repeatedly, and how damaging that might be to her image of herself, even when the abuse has theoretically ended. It was heart-breaking and utterly agonizing to read, which is an indication I think that the author has done her job correctly.
In the midst of this, though, is a sweet, wonderful, long-lasting romance between Wilhelm and Dortchen. It isn’t always easy, and they spend months apart or not speaking at times, but neither can let go of the other. And the ending was certainly enough to bring me to tears, after reading about so much hardship. The fairy tales and the romance give this book an edge out of the difficulties that torment the people within it, and ultimately make it a stand-out read.
I received and read this book as part of a book tour organized by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. You can check out the remaining tour stops here.