Oh, Those Quaint and Wacky Dutch

silver skates

Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge, 1865

I was surprised to see Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates pop up on Wikipedia’s list of literature published in 1865. I remember watching the movie as a kid, but I never knew it was based on a book. If I had known, I would have assumed that the book was written by a Dutch person. Nope, it’s a romanticized vision of the Netherlands written by an American.

Why? To teach children about the strange, charming habits of the Dutch with their windmills, dikes and such. Mary Mapes Dodge invites us to “take a rocking-chair trip with me to that far country where you may see, perhaps for the first time, some curious things that Hans and Gretel saw every day.” Yes, she really did name her two main characters Hans and Gretel. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published 43 years earlier, just so we’re clear on that. Mapes considers Holland “one of the queerest countries under the sun.” So, that’s the tone of the novel. Look-at-those-whacky-Dutch.

It’s pretty charming to imagine Victorian children sitting around the fire at night listening to Pa or Ma read to them from Hans Brinker from the rocking chair, though, even if the tone is. . .not ideal.

The story contains two plotlines. First we have the Brinker family: Dame Brinker, Raff Brinker, Hans and Gretel. Years before the start of our story, Raff was called to the dikes to make emergency repairs during a bad storm. Whilst battling back the sea, which threatens to flood Holland constantly (Did you know that? I guess I should have known that, because of the dikes. Will climate change eliminate the Netherlands? Kind of a scary place to live. I’m so glad I don’t live in a place that will be underwater soon.), Raff falls and strikes his head. His TBI causes him to lose his memory and most of his intellect. Also, he has a watch in his pocket that is not his and he can’t explain where he got it. Also, the night before his accident Raff suspected that a frenemy of his was plotting to steal the pile of gold he and Dame Brinker had diligently saved for their children’s education. Unfortunately, Raff moved the gold and did not have time to tell his wife, because he was called to the dikes. Without Raff’s earning power, the Brinkers have descended into poverty. They bear it nobly, but the poor children have become social pariahs, because no one wants to hang out with poorly clothed children.

The second story line involves a group of boys who decide to skate between several Dutch cities along the canals. Hans is not included, because he doesn’t have the money for food and lodging and no one likes him, because he’s poor. Of course, one boy has an English cousin visiting who needs everything explained to him so he can comment on how weird the Dutch are. The boys’ trip is a vehicle for description of Dutch history, geography, architecture and culture. Sadly, there’s a heavy dose of fat shaming. Mapes paused every few pages to poke fun at the good natured, pudgy kid in the group who can’t keep up and continually needs a nap and more food.

Both stories culminate in a race to see who is the fastest kid in this particular Dutch town. The prize is a pair of silver skates.

If you’re a sentimental sort, like me, you will find the resolution of the Brinker family’s strife quite touching.

I don’t have much else to say about this book, because there’s not much to it. Considering that the genre of children’s literature did not exist as we know it when this book was written, it’s not a bad first foray. It’s not great either.

You might like Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re dutchophile (Is that a thing. Surely it is.)

You might not like Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re not even a little bit sappy

Final thoughts: While Hans Brinker is an influential work of literature, it popularized the speed skating and the story of the Dutch boy plugging the dike with his finger, it is forgettable as literature. Some aspects are well done, but it’s a bit tiresome overall.

 

Christina Rossetti: Men Are Goblins

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Christina Rossetti, Poetry

Christina Rossetti was a Victorian poet. That’s all I know about her, so perhaps she didn’t have a dramatic life. Her most famous poem is Goblin’s Market, a fairy tale treatise on the tiresome theme of female sexual purity.

The poem is a longish ballad that commences with a list of fruit, which is good fun. Goblin men call out to maidens, entreating them to taste their many varieties of succulent fruit. If that sounds sexual, you are interpreting it correctly. Lizzie and Laura are two sisters who live in the woods near this band of fruit-bearing goblins. Laura really wants to try that luscious fruit, but Lizzie says “Maids should not look at goblin men.” We are so far in advance of the Sexual Revolution, that unmarried women should not even look at men. Laura listens not. Having no money, she trades a lock of her golden hair for the goblin’s wares. And she loves the wares.

When the sisters get back to their cabin, Laura pines away with desire for . . . fruit. Lizzie had a friend who died of sadness after eating the goblin fruit and she worries so much for Laura that she enters the forest with a piece of silver, determined to buy Laura a peach. But those nasty, bestial goblins with their squirrel-tails and snail-faces laugh at Lizzie and implore her to taste their plump grapes herself. Pure, chaste Lizzie refuses. The goblins kick her and pinch her and smear fruit on her face and neck, which is truly horrifying if you think about what this behavior symbolizes. Lizzie does not let a drop of goblin fruit juice pass her lips. After her ordeal, she exultantly returns to Laura, covered in fruit juice that she knows will satisfy her sister’s longings. Laura kisses Lizzie, but the delicious flavor of the fruit has changed to a fiery antidote that cures the pangs Laura has been suffering. She is redeemed. They both get married and have babies.

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The poem is well-written and the descriptions of succulent fruit and misshapen goblins are delightful.

“One  had a cat’s face

one whisked a tail,

One tramped at a rat’s pace,

One crawled like a snail,

One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,

One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.”

Even though I have spent the last few years reading literature that primarily concerns itself with female sexual purity, I still feel too far removed from that culture to truly understand this poem.

I see a “why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free” message in the goblin’s rejection of Laura after she taste’s their fruit. Rossetti warns young women that if they give in to a man’s seductive words, they will crave more—sex? attention? affection?—but will be discarded. Perhaps that was prudent advice during a time when female virginity was still a prerequisite for marriage. The double standard here is still repugnant.

What I can’t fathom is how Lizzie is able to rescue her sister. Is this some sort of Jesus-like sacrifice? Does her suffering erase her sister’s sin? I don’t understand how this worked for Jesus or for Lizzie. Why would one person’s suffering transmogrify another person’s wrongdoing? It makes no sense to me. Why would God feel more charitable towards humans after they tortured his son to death? How can anyone restore another person’s virginity?

The theme of female sexual purity reoccurs throughout Rossetti’s poems. Women sneer at other women for their sexual indiscretion. I’m against it.

A friend of mine suggested an interpretation of Goblin’s Market as a metaphor for addiction. I like that interpretation, but I think the sexual undertones are undeniable. Fruit generally alludes to sex in poetry, and prose for that matter. Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, famously painted Proserpine. We all know what that pomegranate in her hand symbolizes. In the myth, when Proserpine/Persephone cannot return to her mother, because she already took a bite of fruit in Hades. We’re not talking about fruit. Hades raped her and now she has to stay married to him. A pomegranate is not always just a pomegranate. Also, culture is horrible and I would like to take a vacation from it, please.

I must mention my favorite poem by Rossetti, No, Thank You, John, a poem repelling some obnoxious friend-zoner named John. Here are a few stanzas to give you an impression of the poem:

 

You know I never loved you, John;

No fault of mine made me your toast:

Why will you haunt me with a face as wan

As shows an hour-old ghost?

I have no heart?—Perhaps I have not;

But then you’re made to take offense

That I don’t give you what I have not got:

Use your own common sense.

 

Girl, you tell him! I love this as a rebuttal to Cavalier poems attempting to seduce women. Shove off, John. I don’t owe you a thing, much less my heart or body. Stop mooning around like an idiot and trying to guilt me into courting you. The first line is “I never said I loved you, John.” I don’t know that I prefer any other first line to this one. It’s magnificent. Proof that mi’ladying is an age-old tradition.

You might like Christina Rossetti if:

  • your favorite things are fruit and goblins

You might not like Christina Rossetti if:

  • you’re not interested in shaming women for their sexuality

Final thoughts: I love No, Thank You, John, but overall, Rossetti is not one of my favorite poets. I like her poems, but they don’t thrill me.

What I Learned from Reading Slave Narratives

 

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, 1861

You should not read this post; you should just read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I can tell you that my heart hurt when I read Harriet Jacobs’ account of her life, but you need to feel that for yourself. You need to spend some time thinking about the white men who raped their slaves and then enslaved their own children. It’s not enough to just contemplate the fact that this happened, you need to hear from a woman who lived under these circumstances. Harriet Jacobs recounts living in terror from age fifteen, which was when her “master” began threatening her sexually. I could tell you how I feel about that, but you shouldn’t hear it from me, you should hear it from her.

You should think about the enslaved fathers who had no power to protect their wives and children from being raped. You should think about the mothers who felt that the only reason to keep living was their children and yet prayed that their children would die as infants rather than live as slaves.

I can tell you that Harriet Jacobs’ fear of being raped was so great that she hid in a crawlspace barely bigger than a coffin for seven years until she could escape to the North, but you need to hear it from her. Her words as she describes listening to the voices of her children below her, but being unable to talk to them or hold them are more important than the words you are reading right now.

This is such an important book. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the only firsthand accounts of slavery from a woman’s perspective. Just before the commencement of the Civil War, Harriet Jacobs began publishing her account of her life serially in The New York Tribune, but her very veiled descriptions of sexual harassment were deemed unsuitable for publication. At that time white women were protected from even knowing about the acts of violence that a man could legally commit against his black slaves.

Facts about the history of slavery are horrifying. Yet, it’s too easy to shudder at a line in a textbook and pass on the next sentence, the next chapter, the next thought, without truly contemplating the meaning of slavery for the enslaved. When we study history, we spend too much time on the lives of great men, and not enough time on the lives of the people. Personally, I think the best measure for evaluating the greatness of a historical figure is by the effect their actions had on the quality of life of the people within their power. All of the people within their power. No slave owner should be held up as a great man or woman.

I’m losing focus and I’m getting very tense. I am going to stop writing, because I am not important. Harriet Jacobs is important. If you are from the US or live in the US, you need to read this book.

The Play Lincoln Was Watching When He Was Killed

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Our American Cousin, Tom Taylor, 1858

Our American Cousin has the dubious distinction of being the play that Abraham Lincoln was attending when he was assassinated. Ironically, given its dark history, the play is a delightful, farcical comedy. The plot centers around the visit of an American to his aristocratic English family. I believe a description of the characters will serve to illustrate Tom Taylor’s humor.

  • Asa Trenchard—the titular American cousin. “I’m Asa Trenchard, born in Vermont, suckled on the banks of Muddy Creek, about the tallest gunner, the slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the state.” He’s rustic, a good shot with a bow and arrow, worldly-wise and savvier than his British relatives. Asa speaks in a stream of folksy colloquialisms. He is unrefined, but kind and practical. Taylor’s depiction of Asa’s culture shock cracked me up. Asa finds the valet assigned to him astoundingly useless, quipping “Hold on, say, I may want to yawn presently and I shall want someone to close my mouth.” After a few days in England, Asa figures out the foibles and hidden agendas of every member of his uncle’s household.
  • Lord Dundreary—a silly British nobleman visiting the family. “I never can forget—when I can recollect.” A lisping buffoon with odd facial hair, and a habit of mixing up words. Dundreary became an iconic comic character. Actor Edward Askew Sothern’s physical comedy and ad libs became so famous that bushy sideburns were known as Dundrearies and mixed metaphors as Dundrearyisms for a while. Dundreary is in love with Georgina.
  • Sir Edward Trenchard—a proud but terribly indebted lord. “A pretty time for such levity when ruin stares me in the face.” He considers suicide or marrying his daughter to a scoundrel as means to ending his financial difficulties.
  • Coyle—an old servant of the household who is now attempting to defraud them of all their property and marry Florence. “And now to show this pompous baronet the precipice on which he stands.”
  • Florence Trenchard—Sir Edward’s daughter. “Why will papa not trust me? Oh, Harry! I wish he would. I wish he would find out what a lot of pluck and common sense there is in this feather head of mine.” Florence truly is plucky. She realizes Asa’s value and helps him resolve the family conundrum.
  • Mary Trenchard—a cousin dispossessed by the will that gives Asa the family property. “Well, I must look to my dairy or all my last week’s milk will be spoiled.” Disinherited Mary must make her own living in her dairy. She’s sweet and domestic. Asa falls in love at first sight, because she’s the only productive person he’s met in England.
  • Georgina—a girl who’s trying to marry Lord Dundreary. “I’m too delicate.” Georgina pretends to be a delicate invalid, because that’s what turns on Dundreary.

While Asa seems to be the comedic figure, the play actually satirizes foolish, affected, avaricious British nobility. It is pretty funny to read a Victorian Brit’s take on Americans. I mean, I know I can’t speak for more than 30 seconds without including a metaphor involving possums, eels, or pigs in hollers. So, a pretty accurate portrayal of Americans.

You might like Our American Cousin if:

  • you’re a curious history buff.
  • you have a sense of humor.
  • you like puns.
  • you enjoy a little satire in your farce and a bit of farce in your satire.

You might not like Our American Cousin if:

  • you’re more serious than a badger in a bunny hole.

Final thoughts: This was well worth reading. I reread it before writing this post and I enjoyed it the second time too. It’s funny, entertaining and quite short. A good read.

A Fantasy Novel for Philosophical Loners

phantastes

Phantastes, George MacDonald, 1858

Do you feel a breeze? That’s a cool, refreshing puff of sweet, sweet fantasy fiction. The last glimpse of the supernatural I had was the ghost at the window in Wuthering Heights. But, I worked my way to Phantastes, a genre-starting novel by the brave forefather of fantasy literature in English, George MacDonald.

MacDonald influenced such giants as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. Phantastes is his first novel. It’s not the swashbuckling team adventure story that Tolkein standardized. Instead, a lone traveler journeys aimlessly through fairyland. He encounters strange enemies and allies, but the conflict in Phantastes is mostly internal. The wonders of fairyland provide a backdrop for a somber story of self-discovery.

The protagonist enters fairyland through an enchanted desk. You know, a magic item of furniture that contains a passage to a magical world. Anyone thinking of Narnia? He has no particular goal or quest, but simply follows his instincts as he travels. The plot structure reminded me of the last books of the Mabinogion, a series of Welsh-Celtic myths, because the main characters encounter a string of random obstacles; there’s no coherent plot line. It reads more like a travel journal than a novel.

The protagonist has enemies in the form of tree people. An ash tree is out to get him, for no clear reason other than the inherent evilness of ash trees. An enchantress known as the alder-maiden attempts to seduce him, reminiscent of the enchantress Duenna from The Faery Queene. He falls in love with a woman who is part statue, a direct reference to Pygmalion. However, his primary struggle is with his own shadow. Peter Pan, anybody?

His shadow takes on a life of its own. Like the shard of glass that fell into Kai’s eye from the Snow Queen’s mirror, the shadow prevents the hero from seeing any good in the world. Every beautiful person or scene he looks on turns sinister and mundane when his shadow falls over it. Plenty of metaphorical depths to plumb there. The shadow reminds me of Kelly Link’s story “Stone Animals,” in which the world around two parents gradually becomes haunted, one item at a time. I also thought of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-addled mind sees not people, but hideous lizard people. All these stories examine how easily our own perception can destroy our ability to see the beauty and goodness that surrounds us. How easily fear and doubt within can ruin our understanding of the world without. So watch out for reefer madness, kids.

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Look at the spectacular beard on George MacDonald! And the attitude. Fierce. 

It was nice to take a break from Victorian realism to ramble with fairies and enchantresses for a while. Phantastes is quite an impressive work of imagination. MacDonald stumbles a bit stylistically. This may sound silly, but his paragraphs are too long. There’s something about line breaks. They allow the reader to pause and process a subset of information. I found myself losing track of the narrative, because by the time I made it to the end of a paragraph I had forgotten something from the beginning of the same paragraph. Perhaps your brain moves ideas to a different memory storage area when you see this:

Anyway, this minor stylistic detail hampered my enjoyment of the text. The good news is that George MacDonald wrote more books and refined his style. You will see more of him on this blog and more glowing reviews.

 

If you’re a fantasy fan, Phantastes is at least worth a listen. There are two free versions on librivox.org

Here are some quotes for you to enjoy:

“What I did see appeared perfectly lovely; more near the face that had been born with me in my soul, than anything I had seen before in art or nature.”

It’s difficult to write an original metaphor about love and beauty. I like the idea of a face born with you in your soul, of recognition as a part of attraction and of searching nature for something corresponding to an idea born inside you. It’s not practical or realistic, but hey, this is fantasy.

 

You might like Phantastes if:

  • you’re a loner Philosophy major who likes fantasy.

You might not like Phantastes if:

  • you read fantasy for the swashing, the buckling and the team building.

Final thoughts:

I like it plenty, but I don’t love it. MacDonald’s later works are better. This is the most philosophical fantasy book I’ve read. So, if that’s your bag, go for it.