Forsyth (Bitter Greens, 2014, etc.) unearths a beautiful love story in the making of the Grimm brothers’ fairy-tale collection amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars.
Twelve-year-old Dortchen Wild lives next door to Wilhelm Grimm and his brothers in the German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel. The “wildest” of six sisters, Dortchen would rather be outside than waiting on her bedridden mother to avoid the wrath of her ill-tempered father. Forsyth captures the sweetness of domestic life in a time of political unrest as Dortchen sneaks out to see Wilhelm, often bringing him herbal remedies from her father’s shop. Sickly and desperately poor, Wilhelm and his brother Jakob are collecting stories in the hope of publishing a book—and Dortchen hopes to get closer to him as he transcribes her homespun versions of “Hänsel and Gretel” and “Cinderella.” Her fanciful stories contain a morsel of truth, the most unsettling of which is found in “All-Kinds-of-Fur,” about a princess who's forced to marry her own father after her mother dies. Dortchen can’t hide from her father’s incestuous rage as she matures beyond his control. Nor can she shake the ghostly presence of Napoleon’s army: “Dortchen and her sisters had seen the innumerable red eyes of the French army’s campfires from the window of their sitting room.” Later, Forsyth describes the aftermath of war in chilling detail as Dortchen’s brother, Rudolf, returns from Russia with frostbitten fingers and toes, infecting his wife and baby with the germs from his coat. Wilhelm and Dortchen are separated for many years, enduring heartache, sacrifice, and longing as Wilhelm and Jakob work through several failed drafts of their book and Dortchen cares for her family.
In the bleak pages of history, Forsyth finds a story of enduring love and artistic integrity—her retelling is a fairy tale in itself.