(This review first appeared in March 2004)

Rating: ★★★★★ 

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, by Louise Murphy. Penguin Books (2003), 306 pages.

Through the trees they came, pawing at the snow to uncover the moss and leaves, eating any low-growing twigs and chewing the bark. Gretel caught her breath but didn’t move or speak. Telek took her hand, and they stood in the snow and did not even blink while the ponies came toward them. They were smaller than domesticated ponies, and their heads were heavy, almost like the heads of donkeys. They were thickly built and moved surely in the snow.  …The stallion lifted his head and gave a sudden blow of steam through his nostrils. The mares lifted their heads too, and in one movement it seemed, they all three broke and ran toward the east in bounds that cleared the deeper drifts of snow.

There’s nothing more thrilling than when a novel introduces me to an extraordinarily wonderful thing I hadn’t before known existed. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’s setting is the Bialowieza Forest, Europe’s only remaining primeval forest and a World Heritage Site filled with animals that exist nowhere else in Europe: tarpan ponies, grey wolves, bison, rare owls, boar, and lynx. I’m so happy I was introduced to this unique forest via this book, and though the plot includes scenes of terrible brutality, what I think of first and foremost when I think of this book is the tarpan ponies grazing in the fog and blowing steam through their nostrils.

A few people I have loaned this book to have said that they were initially confused about whether or not this story is true. It is not. Adding to the confusion is the misleading tagline on the back cover, which bills this to be a “retelling” of the traditional fairy tale. That’s a bad choice of words, because this is in no way a “retelling” in the sense that Zel is a retelling. What we have here is a fictional, original novel set in Poland during World War II in which the skeletal outlines of the Grimm tale are cleverly incorporated: Two children are abandoned in the woods (not just any woods, but the aforementioned Bialowieza, reminiscent of Grimm’s Black Forest of the Middle Ages) by their parents in hopes that the siblings will be able to evade capture by the Nazis. They assume the names Hansel and Gretel to hide the fact that they are Jewish. They are taken in by an old woman, solitary and misunderstood, whom the villagers call a witch. And, of course, there is an oven—in this case a Holocaust oven.

The oven, and countless other horrifying examples of Nazi brutality, makes this book really difficult to read in places. Nonetheless, it is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. It eloquently and powerfully illustrates the horrors of the Holocaust, more so than any other novel I’ve read. The writing is beautiful and haunting, the plot suspenseful and impossible to forget. I love the Hansel and Gretel framework. That sort of literary device is not easy to pull off but in this case was very skillfully executed.

“The boy could almost be one of the Rom.”
“His name is Hansel. I’m Gretel.” She didn’t know what the Rom were, but it was better not to be anything.
The woman wore a piece of blanket cut to make a shawl. Under that were several sweaters, the color of dirt, then some sort of dress. Over the skirt of the dress she had layered a woolen skirt that dragged in the dirt, heavy with mud on the bottom. Gretel stared at the woman’s clothes, but it was all right. There was no lump of a gun, no stick or whip under her clothes. None that the girl could see.
Stretching out her hand, the woman lifted a strand of Gretel’s silvery hair, moving closer until Gretel could smell a musty odor. Suddenly the woman took Gretel’s face in her hands and imprisoned it with hard fingers. Gretel stared into the black eyes with her blue ones and hoped the woman wouldn’t twist her neck and break it. There was nothing to do. The woman held her too tightly.
“But you’re not of the Rom.”
“No,” Gretel whispered.
“And you have such nice, sturdy, German names.”