The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

The Wild Girl Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty…I’ve known all of these stories since my childhood, but I’ve never really thought about where they came from. Yes, they all appeared in my big book of Grimms’ Fairy Tales but how exactly did the Brothers Grimm come up with all these wonderful stories? What was their inspiration? Kate Forsyth’s new novel, The Wild Girl, shows us how Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm spent years collecting and writing down old tales told to them by their friends and neighbours. One of these friends was Dortchen Wild, a young woman who grows up next door to the Grimm family in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel. The Wild Girl is Dortchen’s story.

Dortchen is one of six daughters of an apothecary and his wife, described on the back cover as “the pretty one (Gretchen), the musical one (Hanne), the clever one (Rose), the helpful one (Lisette), the young one (Mia) and the wild one (Dortchen)”. As there are six sisters to get to know – and a brother, Rudolf – giving each of them one or two strong characteristics made it easy to remember which was which, even if it meant that not all of them felt as well-rounded as Dortchen. The Grimms are also a large family but in a worse position than the Wilds financially, as Frau Grimm is a widow and with the Napoleonic Wars raging throughout Europe, her sons are struggling to find work. Dortchen has been in love with Wilhelm Grimm from the age of twelve, but knows that her father will never allow them to marry – partly because of Wilhelm’s poverty but also because he just doesn’t seem to want Dortchen to have any happiness in her life.

As I read The Wild Girl I was desperately hoping for Dortchen and Wilhelm to get the happy ending they deserved, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is just a romance novel, because it’s not. Another thing that I loved was the historical setting – I’ve never read about the Napoleonic Wars from a German perspective before and Kate Forsyth has helped me to understand what it was like for the people of Hessen-Cassel as they were invaded first by the French then by the Russians. The violence of the war and the horrors experienced by the soldiers are described in vivid detail – sometimes a bit too vivid for me! There are also lots of lovely descriptions of cobbled streets lit by lanterns, medieval market squares and dark forests, as well as of Dortchen’s work in her father’s apothecary shop, gathering plants and herbs and preparing medicines.

This is quite a dark book and what makes it particularly disturbing is the depiction of Dortchen’s suffering at the hands of her abusive father, Herr Wild. As the novel progresses and he becomes more and more violent and cruel, it’s sad to see how Dortchen, who begins the book as “the wild one”, has her spirit crushed and her confidence destroyed. The darkness of the novel means that we can look forward to the fairy tales as a way to escape, even if only briefly, from the harsh realities of the world being described. The fairy tales are cleverly woven into the novel at relevant points so that they feel like an important part of Dortchen’s story rather than being randomly included just for the sake of it. I found that some of the tales told by Dortchen and other characters could easily be identified as the stories we all know and love; others were new to me but had several elements that felt familiar. While the brothers’ original aim was to try to preserve the old stories that had been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, they were eventually forced to edit their tales to make them more suitable for children and easier to market to the public.

Finally, I think the publishers, Allison & Busby, deserve a word of praise for the way this book has been presented. The hardback edition was a pleasure to read with that pretty blue cover!

The Wild Girl tour banner This post is part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. I’m the last stop on the tour, but if you’d like to read more about The Wild Girl you can find a list of previous reviews and interviews here.

28 thoughts on “The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

    • Helen says:

      I did like the romance aspect but I also thought there was a good balance between that and the other parts of the story. I loved Dortchen and Wilhelm and I really wanted them to have some happiness!

  1. Charlie says:

    Yes to the books themselves, this and Bitter Greens are beautiful. I, too, loved the German perspective. I know it’s a different war entirely, but you just don’t hear much from the German POV. The story I wonder about is All Kinds of Fur – I know the Grimms changed it, and quite rightly, but I can’t think of where it exists nowadays, if it does.

  2. Lark says:

    I keep seeing this book around, but was glad to read your review of it to give me a better idea of what it’s about. Definitely writing this one down. Thanks for another great post!

  3. Samraghni Bonnerjee says:

    This book sounds very interesting, and one that I hadn’t heard of before. I remember reading a brilliant article on the sources of the Grimm Brothers’s stories during the bicentenary of the fairy tales. This is the link:
    It vividly recalls the tales of the simple peasant women narrating their stories for the Brothers to transcribe. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. TipiTopi says:

    The other day I read about this book on a blog, and immediately I put it on my TBR list. I was glad to read your review. It gave me a better idea of what it’s about. Interesting book, precisely because it is not just a romantic story. Great review.

    • Helen says:

      I did enjoy reading about the romance between Dortchen and Wilhelm but I also loved the historical background and learning about the origins of the fairy tales. I’m glad it’s on your TBR list!

  5. Iris says:

    I agree that this book looks very good. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive! Going by Bitter Greens, I would say Forsyth can be quite vivid in her depiction of the less pretty side of life. Not to say that I do not think it deserves to be treated that way sometimes, just that I can imagine some of these scenes must be difficult to read. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to reading it 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, there were a few scenes that were a bit uncomfortable to read, but I do think those scenes were very effective as they really helped to convey the horrors of war and violence. I still haven’t read Bitter Greens yet but am looking forward to it.

  6. Lisa says:

    Fascinating review, Helen! I’m really intrigued by the setting, a new one for me, as well as the story. If Bitter Greens is by the same author, then I’ll have to look for both.

    • Helen says:

      If you like fairy tales I would definitely recommend reading this book. It was fascinating to read about how some of the stories originated and how they’ve changed over time.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you’ll get the opportunity to read it soon, Audra. Bitter Greens sounds wonderful too – I obviously need to read that one as soon as possible!

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