Hiddensee ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Author Gregory Maguire takes fairy stories or well-known fantasy stories such as The Wizard of Oz and “reinterprets” them for a grown-up audience. His latest novel is Hiddensee, all about the life of the fictional character Herr Dirk Drosselmeier, woodcarver and toy maker who made from wood “the nutcracker.” Yes, it’s the same nutcracker as the one in the story popularized by Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which was taken from a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, which was itself adapted from a story “The Nutcracker” by Alexandre Dumas. As you can see, this is a story with deep literary roots, none of which you need to know to enjoy the book.
Hiddensee is set in the 1800s in the Black Forest in Bavaria, southern Germany, a magical place even when nothing happens there. Dirk Drosselmeier is a foundling child never knowing his parents or where he came from. He is brought up in a tiny house deep in the woods by an old man and an old woman, who, we find out toward the end of the book, are really Hansel and Gretel. He never has any contact with any other person in his life besides this old man and old woman. They treat him kindly until he is about ten years old and they decide to kill him. When Hansel takes him out into the woods to kill him with his axe, the killing isn’t successful, except in the sense that Drosselmeier dies and comes back to life. It’s a fantasy story, remember.
Drosselmeier, for obvious reasons, gets away from Hansel and Gretel and spends the rest of his childhood with a minister, who takes care of him but is mostly indifferent to him. Do you see a trend here? He doesn’t have a very happy life and doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. One important plot point that must be remembered is that Drosselmeier, when he leaves Hansel and Gretel, takes a crutch with him that he made for Hansel. The crutch is of no apparent use to him, but he takes it with him everywhere he goes, anyway.
After he leaves the minister he finds himself as a sort of servant with a wealthy family, where he befriends the young musician Felix Stahlbaum. He and Felix remain friends as long as they both live. He gets into trouble when it is assumed that he impregnated a young servant girl (he didn’t) and has to leave. He ends up with a paper maker with a strange Persian wife and two small boys. He befriends the family and begins making toys and entertaining the two boys with stories he heard as a child. Eventually he falls in love with the paper maker’s wife. This, of course, does not end happily.
Anyway, the story follows Drosselmeier’s life through to the end. He makes a nutcracker from the crutch he took away from Hansel and Gretel. He sets up a shop in Munich and makes a living as a toy maker. His friend Felix Stahlbaum has two sons of his own and Drosselmeier becomes their godfather.
Felix’s family is the only family Drosselmeier has ever known. Felix dies and Drosselmeier continues being friendly with his widow and two sons. One of the sons grows up and has children of his own, including a daughter Klara. Klara is sickly and might die. The story takes us to a Christmas Eve when Klara is gravely ill and Drosselmeier presents her with the nutcracker he made years earlier and a magical castle that can be opened only with a golden key that is kept inside a walnut concealed on the Tannenbaum. What happens when Klara is alone in the room with the nutcracker, some mice, and the magical castle forms the basis for the story’s conclusion.
I’ve read all of Gregory Maguire’s books. Hiddensee is not my favorite, but it’s engaging and beautifully written throughout, if you, like me, are willing to suspend disbelief for three hundred pages. For a book by Gregory Maguire that seems truly inspired, however, read Wicked or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp