I didn’t much enjoy Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland (1865), but in all fairness, I will admit that a good bit of my displeasure was due to a truly awful edition. I found this one over the summer when I was digging through boxes of children’s books in my mother’s basement; I don’t know whether this was mine, my sister’s, or perhaps even one of my mother’s childhood books. In any case, I’d never read it before and thought it would be a lovely winter read. It was indeed quite wintery, and I really enjoyed imagining a culture where everyone gets around by skating on the frozen canal. At the same time, though, aspects of this book really irritated me. I sort of feel bad admitting this – I hate criticizing a classic children’s book – but then again, I’m trained to read critically and since so many of my other posts have been purely complimentary, I think it’s fair to write a review about a book I didn’t enjoy quite so much.
So then. First off, this edition is awful. It’s full of spelling and grammatical errors, and even a few capitalization typos. A pass by a decent copy editor would have greatly improved my reading experience. The biggest problem with this version, however, is the fact that it failed to include the full title. The book is properly called Hans Brinker, and perhaps more importantly, has a subtitle: A Story of Life in Holland. I knew the proper main title, but not the subtitle (until just now, when I looked up the publication date online). If I had known that the novel was intended as a more general story about Holland, rather than a straightforward tale about a poor boy and a skating competition, I would have been less taken aback by the fact that fully half of the book has nothing to do with Hans at all.
Hans Brinker and his sister Gretel are good-natured children from a family extraordinarily down on their luck. Their father, Raff Brinker, was in a terrible accident which left him brain-damaged and mentally incompetent. Their overworked mother is sometimes in physical danger, trying to take care of a beloved husband who no longer recognizes her. To make matters worse for the family, their entire life savings, hidden in a stocking, disappeared just around the time that Raff was injured. The Brinkers are utterly destitute, but out of loyalty, Dame Brinker refuses to sell a valuable watch that Raff left in her safekeeping just before the accident. The healing of this family and the mysterious story of the watch make up only one of the three major threads of this book.
The second thread is that of the skating competition: all of the youths of Hans’ and Gretel’s hometown of Broek are able to participate in a race, and the boy and girl winners will each receive a sparkling pair of silver skates. Not only is personal pride on the line; these skates represent the promise for future livelihood and success, since the community’s entire life revolves around transportation on the canal. Hans and Gretel, though poor, are both talented skaters, and if only they could get their hands on real skates, rather than the rough wooden ones Hans carved for them, they’d have a real chance…
The final thread of this book is the one that left me confused. If you took a tour of a country, hitting all of the museums and landmarks, hearing all of the historical stories and legends, and then wanted to write a travel guide disguised as a children’s novel, you might have written Hans Brinker. A group of boys – and oddly, this group did not include Hans – decided to take an adventure: over a couple of days, they skated forty miles from their hometown of Broek to the capitol city of Holland, The Hague. The entire expedition is narrated; some of their more exciting experiences included the losing and regaining of all of their money, riding in an ice-boat, and catching a would-be robber. Along the way, they see many major landmarks in Holland and swap stories of Holland’s past heroes (apparently, this book is the source of the legend of the boy who saved the country by stopping a leak in a dike with his finger for an entire night). The odd thing is that the titular character, Hans, is not a presence for fully half of the book. Readers get to know the “captain” of this expedition, Peter van Holp, better than Hans himself.
The strange pacing combined with this very lengthy inserted adventure in which neither Hans nor Gretel participated made for a frustrating read, but I do have to confess that I learned a lot about Holland (or, what an American author thought about Holland – who knows how much of this book is accurate?). I’m glad I read it, since this children’s book is a part of our collective cultural canon, but I don’t think I’ll ever return to it. Has anyone else read Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates? What did you think of it? Any idea how many of the facts and legends are true?