Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review: The True Story of Hansel and Gretel

Summary: In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed "Hansel" and "Gretel." They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called "witch" by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children.

Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, this haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children, and tells a resonant, riveting story. -- Penguin

I have to admit that I wasn't exactly thrilled when my book club decided to read THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL by Louise Murphy for our April meeting. I can't even tell you why I had these feelings because I have had a few friends who raved about this book. And while I tend to enjoy (appreciate is probably a better word) Holocaust and World War II novels, I just had a feeling that I wasn't going to rave about this book. I think I was afraid of the potential for sadness and tragedy especially as they relate to children.

Maybe it's the case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I thought THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL was just okay. I definitely didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. And I was correct in thinking that it would be dark and even graphic in parts. I think the premise behind the story -- a retelling of the fairytale Hansel and Gretel which takes place during the Nazi occupation of Poland -- was nothing very clever. However, the execution of certain parts of the story left me wanting for more. For example, there was a chase at the end of the book that I just felt wasn't necessary. (I wasn't alone with these thoughts at book club. Maybe I was more vocal about them, but....)

Rather than focus on the few things that didn't work for me, I'm going to mention some of the really strong things about this story! I mentioned that I loved the idea behind THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL, but I also appreciated how the author wove the entire fairy tale theme throughout the story. Not only did she do a good job of incorporating the story of Hansel and Gretel -- from the bread crumbs, to the "evil" stepmother, to the "witch," to the oven -- into this novel, but she also included other aspects of traditional fairy tales into the novel. The book really read like a grown-up fairy tale with magic and symbolism (and even darkness) throughout the story.

I also appreciated how Ms. Murphy twisted the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale to fit her story. I hesitate to say too much about the sheer beauty of this because I don't want to give anything away, but I loved the slant she took on the witch, the stepmother, and Gretel's mental state. I thought these unusual renderings still stayed true to the elements of the classic fairy tale while actually giving the story (and the characters) a little more depth. Plus, I liked that these interpretations made me pause and think. They reminded me that things may not be as they first appear in this story.

I do think THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL was an excellent choice for our book club. All of the women appreciated the idea behind the story, but not all of us loved it. Having said that, none of us hated it either so that's saying something. I do think there were enough dissenting opinions about the story to make an extremely interesting discussion. We actually found ourselves talking about character development and writing techniques rather than just the typical discussion questions. There is a reading guide available which I thought was pretty thorough, although (for whatever reason) we didn't find ourselves using it at all. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include fairy tale elements, memory, animals as symbols, good versus evil, magic, religion, and war.

If you are interested in World War II novels or you are looking for a unique twist on a fairy tale, then I do recommend THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL. While I wasn't blown away by the entire novel, it was definitely a worthwhile read and made for a very interesting discussion.

12 comments:

Pam said...

Never heard of this book but it is right up my alley. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Beth F said...

I feel the same way you do about Holocaust and WWII books. This sounds interesting but I doubt I'll add it to my list.

bermudaonion said...

I'm not a fan of fairy tale retellings, so this book probably isn't for me.

Angie said...

The one thing I appreciate about book clubs is that we can make any story an interesting story through our discussion of it. The books we disliked the most usually were our best reviews because everybody was so passionate about one part of it or another.

Steve Capell said...

I am a big fan of WWI and WWII novels, but not sure I would enjoy this one. I will check to see if my public library is stocking this book as my interest at the moment is not enough to purchase a copy. Thanks for your honest review.

Steve

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have this book in my TBR pile but didn't know much about it until now!

Carin S. said...

I don't think it's self-sulfilling prophecy. I've loved many books i have been forced against my will to read by my book club! Also, I find books that everyone loves don't make for good book club discussions. Whereas it sounds like you all had an interesting discussion.

I hadn't heard of this book and love retellings of stories, but think I will take a pass given your caveats. Thanks for the review.

Melanie said...

I've been hearing a lot about this book recently. I just checked it out and it's sitting on my desk. I'll come back and finish your review when I'm done.

Anna said...

Thanks for your honest opinion. I can see how the book would be dark, given that Hansel and Gretel isn't a light fairy tale. I still hope to read this at some point. I'll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

heyiwanttoreadthat.com said...

I was originally drawn to this book because of the title. I thought it was great. But, I do have mixed feelings about Holocaust books and have been steering away from them for awhile until this year.I do kind of like fairy tail retellings, I've enjoyed that trend. But, I think I'll put this one in my maybe if I catch up with my other reading file.

Aths said...

I'm still hoping that I can read this book sometime, mainly because I'm curious of how the H&G storyline is retold in the Nazi period setting. But I will definitely lower my expectations now because after reading your review, I'm sure to be finding similar issue too.

Mares said...

I have recommend this book to all my reader friends which is not something I do lightly since I am a terrible book snob. I highly recommend it to WWII fans and also anyone who just enjoys a good book