The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth
Most people (of European descent) know of the folktale collection compiled by the Brothers Grimm, but few know about the women who told them the tales. One of these storytellers was Dortchen Wild. Second youngest of the Wild family, neighbors to the Grimms, Dortchen was an empathetic girl will a skill for herbalism and a long-running crush on Wilhelm Grimm. Against the backdrop of the Napoléonic Wars their collaboration and eventual romance unfolds, the darkness all around matched only by the darkness in Dortchen’s own home.
One of the things I loved about Bitter Greens, apart from the fairy-tale and deeply-researched historical fiction aspects, was how complex the writing was. Three stories intertwined like the strands that form a braid, echoing each other and moving the narrative forward. The writing in The Wild Girl is no less rich but, because the scope of the novel is so much smaller, at times it feels as though there is not enough story to justify the novel’s nearly five-hundred pages. The A-plot is ostensibly the romance between Wilhelm and Dortchen, but it is often swamped by the brutal realities of Dortchen’s day-to-day life. Where the arcs of Bitter Greens‘ three heroines called back to each other, in The Wild Girl it is the stories told by Dortchen that call back to her own life. Many fairy-tale themes crop up in the two-decade-long tale of her romance with Wilhelm: sisters going to a ball while one stays home to do chores, magic rhymes, and the transformative power of a really awesome dress.
Some of the themes of The Wild Girl struck so close to home that I have to admit they tempered my enjoyment of the story. Dortchen’s experience as a civilian during a war that seems like it will never end, with her country first being invaded and then used to supply soldiers for the conquerors to invade other countries, hit a little too close to home for this American. While many would argue that America is the Napoléonic France of our situation, from a civilian standpoint my country was violently attacked when I was in high school and we’ve been at war with multiple countries ever since. I am married to a Marine who began his service right after 9/11, I have taught preschool and cared for infants on military bases, half of my friends enlisted straight after high school, and I have been groped in airports in the name of “safety” more times than I can bear to think about. My youngest brother currently has plans to enlist. In 2008 we were promised an end to this war and it hasn’t materialized yet, so I related to the climate of worry though my struggle has not yet grown so dire as Dortchen’s.
The other major plot of the novel is Dortchen’s relationship with her extremely strict father. As the war worsens and he becomes more stressed and worried, he devolves into outright abuse of his daughters. I will only say that the descriptions of this abuse are realistic to the point of triggering, if you have a past in any way similar. In her author’s note Forsyth mentions the plotting of these passages giving her nightmares. I do appreciate her commitment to leaning in when writing about the uglier aspects of life. I have always loved fairy tales because they are just as dark as life can be. Sometimes darker.
There is much to love about The Wild Girl, even if my personal experience prevented me from embracing it as fully as I did Bitter Greens. Germany (specifically Hesse-Kassel, here) is a beautiful, sweet country done justice by Forsyth’s realistic tale of romance between a dreamy writer and an apothecary’s daughter. It may be a bit long-winded, but it’s an easy trap to fall into for lovers of history and literature alike (and an author sticking to a historical timeline.) People who enjoy Austen or Little Women will like the early passages with Dortchen and her siblings, fairy-tale lovers will be rewarded throughout.