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hans brinker

21 april 2009

Mary Mapes Dodge published Hans Brinker or, The Silver Skates in 1865. I am just getting around to reviewing it, though I do have the slight excuse that I wasn't born until 94 years after it was first printed. I have procrastinated another 50 years because Hans Brinker was one of the long list of highly famous children's books that I never encountered when I was a child. Of course, I vaguely knew that there was such a book. Images of Dutch kids on skates flash through my memory, from some movie or after-school special or other. And I knew the story of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, which is told in its canonical form in Dodge's novel. But my innocence of Hans Brinker was unmixed until just now.

In some ways, I'd like to regain that innocence. (As Groucho Marx says to Chico in some movie, "I don't suppose I could buy back my introduction to you?") Hans Brinker is a powerful waste of time. It's equal parts glurgy fairy tale, enervating travelogue, and primer of old-fashioned Yankee condescension. But for all that, it is powerful: the story (when the book lets itself stoop to story) is oddly compelling, even as it is extremely clichéd and far-fetched.

American writer Mary Mapes Dodge never visited Holland. (I have this not only from Wikipedia but from an essay by May Lamberton Becker in my library's copy of Hans Brinker.) Her vicarious relationship to the Netherlands didn't stop her from having exhaustive opinions about Dutch people and their culture. "Holland is one of the queerest countries under the sun," she begins her second chapter (22). Practically every chapter of Hans Brinker contains two or three breathless "can you beat that?" examples of how perverse Dutch customs can be. What can we say about a country where people gorge themselves on potato salad and hang different-colored pincushions on their doors to signify the birth of male or female children?

The plot of Hans Brinker is hard enough to take. Young Hans and his sister, improbably named Gretel, are surviving on black bread and water because their father Raff Brinker received a blow to the head while patching up one of those substandard dikes a decade earlier. The wallop has turned Raff into an imbecile, not that he was the sharpest skate on the canal to begin with. In the process of becoming imbecilic, Raff has acquired someone else's pocket watch. But meanwhile, he has forgotten where he put the Brinker family savings, which he had conveniently invested in an old sock. The other Brinkers have been digging out of this financial hole ever since.

Hope is on the horizon, though, in the form of a speed-skating race. (Or rather races; with proto-Title-IX equity, separate boys' and girls' events are being staged.) Hans and Gretel are the two fastest skaters in Holland, even though they have to whittle their own skates out of wood. But a benefactor gives Hans some whittling work so that he can buy some decent steel skates for himself and his sister. The prize? The silver skates of the subtitle, which frankly don't sound much more practical than wooden skates. But perhaps they can be sold to keep the Brinkers in black bread a little longer.

Hans is skating aimlessly around one day when he literally runs into a certain Boekman, who come to find is the most eminent brain surgeon in the Low Countries. For Boekman to whip off the top of Dad's skull pro bono and rearrange things in his brainpan is a doddle. But once the operation restores Raff Brinker to his usual low intelligence, Boekman announces ominously that "the father," as his children irritatingly and presumably faux-Teutonically keep calling him, must eat white bread or risk buying the farm. (And what a queer Dutch farm that would be, lower than the sea itself, with a handsome broad dike around it!) Hans, who apparently has inherited his father's keen powers of analysis, is ready to hock his steel skates for Pop's Wonder-Bread money. But providentially, Raff remembers that he buried the sockload of cash under a willow stump for safekeeping. The kids dig up the stash, and the father is safe.

Meanwhile – and I am not exaggerating here – the novel makes a hundred-page excursus that has nothing to do with the silver-skates or idiot-dad plots. We follow a group of middle-class boys as they skate around the entire country of the Netherlands, seeing sights in all the major museums, visiting Baedeker-worthy churches, and commenting on what queer folk the Dutch are, even though they are themselves Dutch. None of this has anything to do with the rest of the story, though there is a resonance here and there. The boys' leader, Peter, at one point loses a sock full of the gang's money, and Hans finds and returns it to him, for instance. You would think that the nation that invented modern mercantilism would by the 1840s have outgrown socks as the preferred locale for savings, but again, these Hollanders are not the full guilder.

Peter is so grateful to Hans that, in the climactic race, he allows Hans to lend him a skate strap when his own breaks. The undeserving twit Peter thereby wins the silver skates, boys' division. Gretel, however, wins the girls' gongs. All ends well, via a melodramatic turn of events involving Dr. Boekman, the mysterious pocket watch, and an unquaffed prescription filled with poison.

Well, I have read Hans Brinker, and now I don't have to read it ever again. And though life was a little too short for the experience, and there is now a little less of it left to me, I can't say my regret is extreme. I now know that not all 19th-century American children's classics are of the quality of Little Women or A Little Princess. And I know that a certain taste for the awful persisted among readers of children's classics in this country long after the 19th century ended. These are things as worth knowing as the more rarefied reaches of the high canon.

Dodge, Mary Mapes. Hans Brinker or, the silver skates. 1865. Illustrated by Hilda van Stockum. 1946. Cleveland: Collins World, 1974.