Author: Kate Forsyth
Rating: 5 Stars
More often than not, I finish a book and settle down to write a review in order to organize my thoughts, make sense of the work I've just read, and waste a few more precious seconds lingering in a fictional world before waking up to reality. From time to time, however, review-writing is a cathartic experience; an effort to push the novel - the words, the characters, the setting - out of my blood stream and into the void, where it can no longer haunt my dreams and every waking thought. The Wild Girl falls into this latter category of brilliant, beautiful, sweeping stories that have captured me, heart and soul, but not returned me to this Earth; not just yet.
The Brothers Grimm are known worldwide; in perhaps the earliest of childhood memories, their names and folk tales are set in stone. It is easy to think of them as hobbling old men, gray hair falling past their shoulders as they scribble late into the night, leaning on old wooden walking sticks as they crowd around a fire, or simply dreaming in the shade of faeries. In reality, however, the Brothers Grimm were young, ambitious men when they set out to collect old German stories and compile them into expansive volumes; originally for scholars, but later for children. Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of these two Brothers Grimm, was loved from afar by the second-youngest of his neighbors six daughters, Dortchen Wild. At the tender age of twelve, Dortchen looked upon nineteen-year-old Wilhelm's kind face and fell in love.
In was only 1805 when the two first met in Hessen-Cassel, an era dominated by Napoleon's sweeping victories across Europe as he swiftly rose to power and fame. All the history books tell us of Wilhelm's life is that he diligently wrote the tales told to him by the village women, Dortchen being one of them, falling in love with her. Dortchen's father, Herr Wild, refused to have one of his daughters marry a Grimm and, it seemed, their love story was doomed. When he passed away in 1814, though, Wilhelm and Dortchen were still unmarried. It was only in 1825, after years of poverty and hardship, that the two become husband and wife. The Wild Girl is Forsyth's vivid re-imagining of the years in-between; the years spent in longing and heartbreak, in despair and hope, but always - always - in love.
From the first page itself, The Wild Girl is a marvel of literature. Forsyth, having delved deep into the history of the Brothers Grimm and, in particular, Wilhelm's wife, narrates this tale from Dortchen's perspective, sticking devoutly to known historical dates and filling in details as accurately as possible, paying hommage to the mysterious companion of Wilhelm whose story-telling abilities were unrivaled. The Wild Girl sucked me in primarily due to the sheer scope of research evident throughout its pages. Not only did Forsyth perfectly mimic the German sentiment during these difficult times of war and poverty, but she never hesitated to delve into politics, medicine, and the law of the era. In every way possible, The Wild Girl is an accurate representation of 19th Century Germany, so much so that it became difficult for me to re-orient myself back into the 21st Century whenever I dared tear my eyes away from the page.
While the historical aspects of this novel drew me in, though, the characters compelled me to stay. Dortchen is a vivacious narrator, known to be "wild" among her sisters. When we first meet her, Dortchen's naivety and childhood innocence linger, despite the fact that she is on the brink of adolescence. As Dortchen matures, however, growing into womanhood and surviving the hardships of war, poverty, and death, her change is drastic. Gone is the laughing, child-like wonder, replaced instead by demure fear and stone emotion. It is a gradual process, though, and for every grief Dortchen suffers, there are just as many stolen moments of ecstasy and delight to counter them. The Wild Girl is a dark tale, to be sure. It had me bawling into my blankets, covering my eyes from reading further in a poor attempt to protect my heart. And yet, it is remains a tale of hope, long-lasting relationships, and deep love. Although Dortchen is altered by the events in her life, she is never too far gone that she doesn't retain her quiet wisdom, teasing cleverness, or her tell-tale sense of adventure. Dortchen's journey is a hard one, but it also worthwhile.
As life throws hurdles in Dortchen's path, so does her heart. At first, her infatuation for Wilhelm can easily be dismissed as a mere childhood crush. As it persists, however, aching with jealousy or smarting from ignorance, the idea of Dortchen and Wilhelm's romance becomes ever-more actualized. Over stolen stories, cups of tea, and garden parties, Wilhelm gradually grows to return Dortchen's love. And still, this affection is that between adolescents; an innocent union untouched by pain, one that does not know the power of dangerous storms which wish to quell it. Over the years, Dortchen and Wilhelm fall apart and back together again, their friendship persisting in strength even where their understanding fails them. Still, it is a beautiful, rich relationship to watch unfold, one that delights in every way imaginable. Moreover, the tales Forsyth weaves into their relationship share a greater meaning to their love story, those themes persisting as Dortchen and Wilhelm struggle to find a way back to one another, despite the lost years between them.
In addition to the love story, though, The Wild Girl is an unflinchingly true story of family. Neither the Wild family nor the Grimm family are perfect, each harboring members whose cruelty or selfishness brings shame upon their name. And yet, that age-old sense of unity is palpable throughout these pages. Dortchen and her sisters may not always get along, but the pervading morale of sacrifice is evident in their relationships. Unfortunately, though, just as folk tales predict, the darkest betrayals and most harmful hurts come from those we trust and love: our own families. Forsyth walks a fine line in molding her characters into beings not quite heroic, but not utterly villainous either. While The Wild Girl is, admittedly, a love story, it is first and foremost the story of Dortchen. It is Dortchen's family, then, her friends and acquaintances whom she keeps in touch with over the years, who additionally grace the pages of this novel, coming to life through Forsyth's multifaceted portrayal of their morality. Looking back on The Wild Girl as a whole, I am able to see the craft Forsyth used to make even her secondary characters grow and change with time and circumstance. A truly noteworthy feat, indeed.
Where The Wild Girl falters, ever-so-slightly, is in the fact that the majority of this novel takes place during the first ten years of Dortchen and Wilhelm's initial meeting. Following the death of Herr Wilder, the novel picks up its pace, rushing through the years. Nevertheless, it remains impeccably paced for the story at hand. Until, that is, the last few chapters. Dortchen's revival from the confused, broken shell she becomes into the confident, content woman who is finally ready to marry her childhood sweetheart wasn't touched upon as much as I would have liked. While there remains plenty of growth, granted, it felt incongruous with the depth of the Dortchen's earlier growth prior to her father's death. Nevertheless, The Wild Girl remains a literary masterpiece of history, folk tale, and love. It may be only my first Forsyth novel, but you can be sure it won't be my last.