Finding history in the fairy tale

I was a rather unusual student in that I loved getting a new syllabus/book list from professors. When you just receive this you’ve got all of these ‘smart-people-recommended’ books that you are required to buy and read. Talk about a fairly easy way to some good new books to read. I found some great authors in my four years of college. For example, Graham Greene remains one of my favorite British (loosely categorized, of course) authors, while Stephen Asma’s “The God’s Drink Whiskey” will always be my tome when I’m looking for great anecdotes combining travel, enlightenment and amusement. One of the best genres (literature and movies alike) that I have discovered in my time as a reader (meaning since I started reading Dr. Seuss when I was 3) are the ones that pillage history. In the same breath, those stories that pillage fiction to find the fact are also wonderful.

I was lucky in my college years. I came in with roughly 5 classes worth of credits. This means that I could take at least 5 classes that had nothing to do with my major. One of those classes was a modern language class (taught by a German professor, actually) on the Grimm’s fairy tales. As just about any peson knows, the fairy tales that we know are majorly doctored versions of those tales (which were, in turn, majorly doctored versions of folk tales they stole from other traditions and legends). My professor made it a point to tell us this every class period. She also made it a point of say that there was nothing wrong with rewriting fairy tales.
In any case, one of the most poignant and moving books that we read in that class was assigned to illustrate her point. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: a novel of war and survival was written by Louise Murphy, a poet and novelist born in 1943. This work places her on the map for many people, and remains the work that she is best known by.

Set in one of the least recorded times and places of Holocaust history, this novel begins with a Jewish family (a father, stepmother, daughter and son) trying to escape the oncoming Nazi’s on a motorcycle. All the elements of the well-known fairy tale show up: a stepmother who talks the father into sending the kids away, a ‘witch’ living in a cottage in the middle of a deep forest, even a stint in an oven. What Murphy does marvelously well is to integrate all of these aspects, twist them, and create a story of war, love, loss and loyalty. The witch, Magda, narrates the story. The first line reveals the basis in legend and the narrator’s focus on the truth of the legend. “The story has been told over and over by liars and it must be retold.” It is Magda, as well, who offers up the nuggets of wisdom that such stories always hold. It is she who finally ends the tale as well, with the core lesson that Murphy spent the whole novel trying to impart. Generally I do not enjoy stories with morals that slap you in the face. And this one really doesn’t, mostly because of the beauty of language that Magda seems imbued with at the very end. In her (the narrator and author) words:

“There is much to love, and that love is what we are left with. When the bombs stop dropping, and the camps fall back to the earth and decay and we are done killing each other, that is what we must hold.”
Bottom line
Read it. You’ll be glad you did. And if you know me personally, you might even be able to bum a copy off of me, keeping in mind that if you lose it, I might have to put you in an oven!

2 thoughts on “Finding history in the fairy tale

  1. Pingback: Updating schoolbooks | Beta Librarian

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