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.