‘Wild by name and wild by nature,’ Dortchen’s father used to say of her. He did not mean it as a compliment. He thought her headstrong, and so he set himself to tame her.
Wild Girl is the story of Dortchen Wild, a young girl growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in the early 19th century. She so happens to live next door to Wilhelm Grimm, scholar and collector of tales. Yes, he is indeed one of the Grimm brothers of fairy tale fame.
She pretty much falls for him the first time she meets him – she aged twelve, he aged nineteen, home from university. But theirs is an impossible relationship, his family is too poor, her father too strict (she is one of six daughters) and Wilhelm at first seems more interested in her older sister. But he is collecting old stories and she has some to tell so they keep in contact although her father disapproves of the Grimm family.
I was expecting more fantasy and fairy tale, a bit more like Patricia A Mckillip’s books like Winter Rose. But Forsyth has written something more like historical fiction than fairytale. Here it is not so much about the tales but about who it was who did the the telling.
She already tells us in her forward that our impression of the Brothers Grimm isn’t accurate.
Most people imagine the brothers as elderly men in medieval costume, travelling around the countryside asking for tales from old women bent over their spinning wheels, or wizened shepherds tending their flocks. The truth is that they were young men in their twenties, living at the same time as Jane Austen and Lord Byron.
And indeed I have been guilty of thinking just that. So this was some eye opener for me!
Forsyth sets the scene well. She brings in a lot of historical background – the kingdom is taken over by the French, Napoléon Bonaparte is trying to take over the world, the fighting, the poverty, the struggles. History is very much alive in this book.
I also like how Forsyth brings in not just old folk tales but also folk medicine. The use of herbs, plants, flowers in medicine (Dortchen’s father is an apothecary and she helps him collect raw materials for his medicines) and also in charms and spells. Their servant, Old Marie, was full of what Dortchen’s father called “pagan nonsense”, such as the gathering of oak moss on Midsummer’s morning for luck and good fortune.
The dried yellow petals of St John’s wort, which Old Marie called ‘chase-devil’ for the way it could drive the megrims away. Gaudy calendula, bright as the sun. Sweet-smelling lemon balm, guaranteed to lift the spirits with its aroma alone.
Wild Girl has bittersweet notes in it. Dortchen’s life is not an easy one. Her father is difficult and cruel, yet Dortchen remains a dutiful daughter. Her life is filled with such longing that you cannot help but hope for a happy ending.
‘Stories are important too,’ Dortchen said. ‘Stories help make sense of things. They make you believe you can do things.’ Once again she felt a sense of frustration at not knowing the right words to express what she meant. ‘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.’
Kate Forsyth is an Australian author. And apparently she has written plenty of books, especially for children (I only first heard of her via a link on the Once Upon a Time sign-up post, Earl Grey Editing had put Wild Girl on her OUAT tbr list).
The Witches of Eileanan series
Dragonclaw (1997) – released as The Witches of Eileanan in the US.
The Pool of Two Moons (1998)
The Cursed Towers (1999)
The Forbidden Land (2000)
The Skull of the World (2001)
The Fathomless Caves (2002)
Rhiannon’s Ride series
The Tower of Ravens (2004)
The Shining City (2005)
The Heart of Stars (2006)
The Chain of Charms series (for 9-18 year olds)
The Gypsy Crown (2006)
The Silver Horse (2006)
The Herb of Grace (2007)
The Cat’s Eye Shell (2007)
The Lightning Bolt (2007)
The Butterfly in Amber (2007)
Ben and Tim’s Magical Misadventures (for young readers)
Dragon Gold (2005)
Wishing For Trouble (2006)
Sea Magic (2008)
The Impossible Quest series
Escape from Wolfhaven Castle (2014)
The Wolves of the Witchwood (2015)
The Starthorn Tree- young adult (2002)
The Puzzle Ring (2009)
The Wildkin’s Curse (2010)
The Starkin Crown (May 2011)
Full Fathom Five – as Kate Humphrey (2003)
Bitter Greens (2012)
The Wild Girl (March 2013)
I read this book for the Once Upon a Time X challenge,
hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings.