Book 45 of my 2014 Reading Challenge
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: a novel of war and survival
Summary (via the book jacket)A poignant and suspenseful retelling of a famous fairy tale set in a war-torn world.
In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in the dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed "Hansel" and "Gretel". They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called "witch" by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children.
A haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children, and tells a resonant, riveting story.
First, a note about the title. This is a fiction novel that places the fairy tale characters Hansel and Gretel in the real setting of Poland during WWII. The 'true story' aspect comes from the portrayal of the witch; as she says, "the story has been told over and over by liars and it must be retold". While there are elements of the fairy tale throughout the book, this is primarily a book about survival during WWII.
It gripped me from the opening. I read with squinted eyes because I wanted to know what would happen but was also so worried about what was going to happen. As always, the horrors of WWII took my breath away. I cried sad tears for the pain and destruction but also happy tears for the love and resilience.
The only flaw for me was the ending. I thought the time between one of the last major turning points and the final resolution of the book was too long and I did skim a little during the last few chapters. That's probably influenced by my low tolerance for what I call 'hijinky' books and movies (see: the middle section of most romantic comedies), where something that should be resolved quickly gets drawn out because a character doesn't do something simple and reasonable (like looking at a group of people when you're searching for someone instead of turning the other way, in this case).
While it's strange to say, "hey this book hurt my heart...you should totally read it!", I would absolutely recommend this to someone that likes human interest stories and WWII novels.
A Few Quotes from the Book
"God didn't come down and kill us. I don't see God shooting children and priests. None of us met God beating up Jews and shoving them into railroad cars. This is men doing the murdering. Talk to men about their evil, kill the evil men, but pray to God. You can't expect God to come down and do our living for us. We have to do that ourselves."
"There is much to love, and that love is what we are left with. When the bombs stop dropping, and the camps fall back to the earth and decay, and we are done killing each other, that is what we must hold. We can never let the world take our memories of love away, and if there are no memories, we must invent love all over again."