This year brings us The Wild Girl, which is actually Forsyth's first adult novel (written before Bitter Greens), but the second to be published in the US. In the new book, Forsyth builds her narrative around the very act of retelling, collecting, and preserving the old tales.
Its heroine, Dortchen Wild, is another real-life figure, a girl who grew up next door to the Grimm family in the small German kingdom of Hesse-Cassel during the tumultuous early years of the 19th Century.
|Dortchen Wild, 1815|
It's Dortchen who's credited with telling Wilhelm Grimm, and his brother, Jakob, many of the enduring folktales collected in their now-famous fairy tale book, Children's and Household Tales (first published in 1812).
Forsyth also builds her narrative around the growing romance of spirited, stout-hearted Dortchen, fifth of six daughters of a severe, upper middle-class apothecary and his frail wife, and Wilhelm, second of five sons of an impoverished widow.
As we all know, the ancient tales so painstakingly recorded by the Grimms are nothing like the Disney versions. Forsyth is interested in the way these symbolic, magic-infused tales reflect the real-life human dilemmas of the people who pass them along over the generations.
She skillfully weaves many of the most extreme cautionary tales of violence, mutilation, and treachery into the equally harrowing real-life events of war (as Hesse-Cassel is occupied by the French and then the Russians), oppression, poverty, drunkenness, abuse, and thwarted love.
In particular, the relationship Forsyth imagines for Dortchen and her cruel father (determined to tame his "wild girl" into obedience) looms over the novel like a black thundercloud, providing some of its most grueling scenes.
|Later edition of the Grimms' book, 1865|
Yet the humor and lyricism of the story snippets themselves, along with Forsyth's strong character-building (especially Dortchen and her lively sisters), help to offset the story's darker moments.
The pacing falters a bit in the last suite of chapters. The author seems to be delaying events in the speculative part of her story to coincide with historical dates, and these scenes feel somewhat unfocused and meandering after the smooth tension-building of the rest of the book.
Still, The Wild Girl is an impressive debut. It's not as gorgeous nor as intricately put together as Bitter Greens, but does provide an insightful look at the enduring stories we tell, and how, and why we tell them.