Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"The True Story of Hansel and Gretel" by Louise Murphy



We've all read the story about Hansel and Gretel as children. I, for one, was terrified by it. Mean stepmothers, dark forests, witches with massive ovens that want to cook and eat children?! Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Louise Murphy puts a clever spin on this fairy tale, and weaves it into a fictional and terrifying account of the survival of two Jewish children during the Holocaust.

A 10-year-old girl and her 7 year-old brother, named "Hansel" and "Gretel" by their father and stepmother to disguise their Jewish heritage, are encouraged to run and hide in the ancient, primeval forests of Eastern Poland to escape capture by the Nazis. They happen upon an old "witch", or healer, with a Gypsy background, named Magda. Putting herself and her entire village at risk, Magda takes in the children, feeds them, and acquires Christian identification for them. A very tense, fine line must be walked in their interaction with the nearby village Piaski, which is governed by a small but ruthless German group led by a Major Frankel and the psychologically twisted Oberfuhrer.

The village Piaski is a perfect microcosm of Europe in the middle of WWII. Many of the villagers only want anonymity, but some are angry and preparing to uprise, storing away weapons and waiting for the opportunity. Some do their best to get in the Germans' good graces for favor. Most are starving. Major Frankel is a defeated man that started out a soldier's soldier, who has become ensnared in the dehumanization of the Polish people and the Jews. His superior, the Oberfuhrer, on the other hand, is what one would consider the epitome of Nazi ism and evil. He is one sick and twisted human being, and enjoys inflicting pain on others. This is not a happy or comfortable place to live.

At the same time, the children's father and strong, independent stepmother join a rogue band of Russians whose solitary mission in life is to seek revenge upon the Germans for all that has been taken from them, and eventually join forces with the Russian army that will collide with the German army in Poland. Neither the children nor the parents know of each other's well-being, nor do they know if they will ever see each other again.

While I generally prefer to read actual memoirs on the Holocaust (why make it up when reality is vivid enough?), this was an engaging and nerve-wracking read. While lyrical and poetic at times, Murphy does not hold back the horrors of the Holocaust from her story. In one instance, the Oberfuhrer systematically starts selecting the "perfect" Polish children with Aryan qualities, with the intent of sending them to be fostered in Germany to strengthen the Aryan race. The townspeople learn of the plan, and begin physically maiming their own children to prevent them from being selected. As a parent, this is a devastating scenario, but understandable. We see other blood-chilling horrors happen to Hansel and Gretel. Things that made me put the book down and walk away. On the other hand, there are strands of hope and redemption sewn throughout the story. The feminist in me was intrigued and excited that Murphy purposefully redeemed the "witch" and the "stepmother" by making them powerful, positive figures, versus the stereotypes we see in all of our childhood fables. I was just a bit disappointed with the ultimate integration of the fairy tale and the story told on these pages. It felt to me like an original and clever seed of an idea that got lost in a bigger story. Either way, the story is a worthwhile investment of your time.

14 comments:

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Where did you come across this one, Sandy? It's looks pretty darned good. I jotted down the title/author and will go searching for it tomorrow. Thanks for the review on this! Book bloggers are like having my own personal book-finding service, LOL.

Dar said...

I had seen this novel mentioned somewhere before and couldn't remember the exact name and therefore couldn't find it so thank you for posting this. My library has a copy. I'm really anxious to read it-great reveiw Sandy!

farmlanebooks said...

I've never heard of this one before. It sounds a bit dark for me, but I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

Beth F said...

Wow. This looks intense. Great review. I've never heard of it. That idea of maiming your own children is chilling. But people did what they had to do to survive.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Michele, Dar, Jackie and Beth - I was recommended this book by a lady I golf with and her son-in-law (both readers of my blog). I am always looking for a WWII-themed book that may be a bit off the radar, and I'd never seen nor heard of this one. I just hate to do reviews of repeats that everyone has seen over and over again (although I'm gonna do it anyway with The Reader!). It is dark, but that is generally what you expect of this genre. One side note: this is like the sixth book in a row I've read where they mention lice! Ugh! What is up with that?

Melody said...

Another Holocaust story! I'm always fascinated by the story of Hansel and Gretel so I think this book sounds very interesting!

Thanks for the great review, Sandy! This is another book I should look out for!

Melissa said...

I've heard great things about this one for a while now and really must get a copy!

Iliana said...

Never heard of this story but sounds powerful! Great review, Sandy!

Literary Feline said...

I read this one a little while ago and really liked it. It was such a tragic story. Great review, Sandy.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Melissa and Iliana - this is definitely worth of your TBR pile, if you are in the mood to stomach a little Holocaust horror. You have to be in the right mood, for sure...

Wendy - I will have to hunt down your review. When it was recommended to me, I hadn't heard of it before. I'm glad I picked it up!

Gavin said...

This one's on my list for the WWII challenge. How to Cook a Wolf is a great read. Fun and very inspiring for those of us who cook!

Anna said...

Great review! I was hoping to read this one for the challenge, too. I bet it was hard to read about the parents maiming their children to keep them safe. How horrible!

I posted your review on the challenge blog here.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Jo-Jo said...

I always loved the Hansel and Gretel story so this one intrigues me! That was a great review--I may have to add this one to my WWII challenge!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Gavin - This story is definitely worthy of the WWII challenge. I am finding that I have to be choosy since my goal is only 10. So many books on this subject!

Anna - There are a couple of events in this book that, as a parent of children with kids about the same age, literally made my stomach hurt. I didn't want to reveal all, but it is very tough to get through. Murphy doesn't mince words.

Jo Jo - Thanks for stopping by! It was a creative twist to integrate the fairy tale with a story such as this. I think you would like it!