It's a little known fact that Wilhelm Grimm married one of the women who told him many of the fairy stories the Grimm brothers were famous for. Her name was Dortchen Wild and in The Wild Girl, Kate Forsyth imagines Dortchen's story. Dortchen and the Grimm family were neighbours growing up in the small German Kingdom of Hessen-Cassel during the Napoleonic Wars. Although Dortchen was attracted to Wilhelm from the start, their relationship was complicated by the poverty of the Grimms, the unstable situation they lived in and Dortchen's overbearing father. Subject to constant criticism and verbal abuse, Dortchen is accused of being the 'wild one' by her father and forced to live according to his every wish. As her home life grows ever more abusive, Dortchen takes refuge in the traditional stories told to her by Old Marie and helps Wilhelm to build his collection.
My synopsis honestly doesn't do this book justice. I was lucky enough to review the excellent Bitter Greens earlier in the year and was thrilled to be offered the chance to review this one. I was expecting it to be very good but it exceeded my expectations. The Wild Girl is a chunky book at almost five hundred pages but I just flew through it as the story, and Dortchen in particular, captivated me. Forsyth manages to make her a quite fiery female character but at the same time keep her appropriate for the time period. Dortchen may complain about boys getting to fight ogres and join the army, but she still feels like an authentic nineteenth century woman who helps to run her family home.
As the reader gets to see Dortchen's 'wild' personality at the beginning of the book, it makes it all the more powerful as her character gradually begins to shrink at her father's influence. I think this was very well done and the issue of abuse was dealt with sensitively. I'm not normally a big fan of romance but the romance between Dortchen and Wilhelm was extremely realistic and well written. Forsyth was so good at putting you in Dortchen's shoes that her pain almost became my own pain by the end of the novel and I was certainly rooting for a happy ending.
The Wild Girl is more straight historical fiction than Bitter Greens. I didn't know much about the Napoleonic Wars or the history of Germany at this time so it was interesting to find out a bit more in the context of the story. Despite being historical fiction, the fairy stories are still at the heart of the book. As Dortchen tells each tale to Wilhelm, they seem to relate to her personal life and a major theme of the novel is the redemptive power of fiction;
"Stories help make sense of things. They make you believe you can do things. They help you imagine that things may be different, that if you just have enough courage...or enough faith.... or goodness....you can change things for the better."
The Wild Girl is a fantastic book and I'm so glad that I read it. It's one of those books that makes you fall in love with reading all over again. Definitely recommended for everyone.
First Published in the UK: 29th July 2013
Score: 5 out of 5