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Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge

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Reading List
Reviewed by Nancy Young

Somehow, I can't quite get through Christmas without a quick reading of Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge. This tale of the patient and loving Brinker children, long-suffering Dame Brinker, generous Hilda Van Gleck, good-hearted Peter Van Holp, and scowling Dr. Boekman, set against the bright, frozen world of 19th century Holland, is the kind of spark that ignites all the true flames of Christmas cheer.

The story is familiar to most of us. Hans and Gretel Brinker's father was seriously injured ten years before the action of the story commences. Immediately prior to the fall that resulted in his injury, Raff Brinker gives his faithful wife a beautiful watch and entreats her to guard it until it is reclaimed. Within hours, Raff is carried back unconscious; and although he regains consciousness, his brain is damaged. He has no memory, no comprehension and no ability to provide for his young family. The town refers to him as "the idiot." Adding literal insult to injury, the thousand guilders the couple has diligently hoarded has vanished.

As the story begins, Hans is 15 and Gretel 12, each having endured 10 years of poverty and hardship. The childhood buzz on the canal is all about the great skating race to be held on December 20th. Hilda's family is to supply the prizes for the girl and boy who win. Each will receive a pair of silver skates, a treasure to excite even the wealthiest of the children. Hans and Gretel's own tragedies and triumphs play out against the background of St. Nicholas Eve, Holland, and the Grand Race.

Hans Brinker easily adapts itself to a "quick read" because it is largely a travelogue and brief history of Holland. I have read every word--and it is interesting--but only once. Little children, particularly, will become lost as it weaves in and out of place and time. The central characters are far too pathetic and appealing to leave them while we follow lesser characters on a "joy-skate" through Amsterdam and the Hague. It is a book that abridges neatly, and with very little explanation. Entire chapters can be leapt across without any sense of their passing. The compelling main plot remains brilliantly intact.

One more caveat, especially for younger children: the comparisons made between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus may give rise to some uncomfortable feelings and questions for True Believers in the "jolly old elf ;" furthermore, there is a somewhat gruesome recounting by Dame Brinker of one of the St. Nicholas legends. Both incidents are easily omitted while reading aloud.

It is, however, a most delightful read-aloud book. While gathered around the hearth, or with feather bed tucked under-chin, it is just the book to enchant away the days before Christmas and imbue them with greater meaning.

Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge is featured in Vol 4 No 1 of The Storybook Home Journal.

Tags: Vol. 4 No. 1, 2010, Book reviews

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