When I picked up a copy of The Wild Girl I was excited to read about the little-known, oft-overlooked third member of the party that helped gather many of the children’s fairy tales we are familiar with today: Dortchen Wild, neighbor and friend of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.
The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth is a fascinating look at how the brothers Grimm collected their tales, from the perspective of young Dortchen. It tells how she became friends with the Grimm family and fell in love with Wilhelm. It is a narrative study of the role of storytelling in community and a look at a small German town’s change, suffering and survival under the Napoleonic reign.
It is also the story of Dortchen’s experience of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Forsyth does a thorough job of illustrating the lengths an abuser goes to to control, manipulate and harm. Dortchen’s suffering is so poignant and illustrated in graphic detail.
The notes at the end of the book provide some historical information that offers much of the foundation for the story. There is much the author found from letters and other books, and there is some speculative piecing together as well. It is thought that the 10-year gap between Herr Wild’s death and Dortchen’s acceptance of Wilhelm’s marriage proposal could be explained by abuse. The literary analysis of the Grimm’s fairy tales is something literary enthusiasts will appreciate.
The power of storytelling assists in Dortchen’s own happy ending. After years of emotional and physical pain that brought much confusion and uncertainty to their relationship, Wilhelm offers her a priceless gift: the gift of a new, good story . Through her story, Dortchen is seen by one who loves her as the worthy person she is, even when she can’t see it herself.
I’m glad someone has finally told Dortchen’s story. To have her own secret stories shared in a way that does not shame or separate her from humanity, but gives her hope for a new meaning in life-Isn’t that what love does for us?