Review – The Wild Girls

Summary: Dortchen Wild fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm the first time she saw him.

Growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in the early Nineteenth century, Dortchen Wild is irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the young and handsome fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm.

It is a time of war, tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hessen-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to save old tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small all over the land.

Dortchen knows many beautiful old stories, such as Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King and Six Swans. As she tells them to Wilhelm, their love blossoms. Yet the Grimm family is desperately poor, and Dortchen’s father has other plans for his daughter. Marriage is an impossible dream.

Dortchen can only hope that happy endings are not just the stuff of fairy tales.
Please allow me a moment to breathe and get over the happiness that I experienced when I finally got my hands on a copy of The Wild Girl (and that gorgeous cover!). I absolutely adore Kate Forsyth as an author (and a person!) even though I read exactly one book from her—the eternally wonderful and one of my all-time favourites Bitter Greens—because she is the type of writer that checks all the boxes: great imagination, wonderful blend of plot and history, flawed but spunky heroines, sympathetic villains and rich worldbuilding. I doubt I am unclear, but just to emphasize my love for the amazing Kate Forsyth, I have astronomical expectations from this book. Just because it checks all the same boxes as Bitter Greens, but even better—featuring the Grimm brothers in the flesh!

Within the first few pages I am immediately in awe of Forsyth’s ability to transport readers into a different world, or at least a different time period and a different region. In the prologue alone I can see and hear the silence in the dark forest with branches hanging all about for sinister effect and feel the chilliness of the frosty winter. I am utterly swept away and can feel myself in every scene, be it a garden or the apothecary or the quaint house that holds all the Wild sisters. Throughout this book I have the privilege of understanding what life is like for a girl in living in a middle-class in Europe that is dominated by Napoleon, and I cannot say that many books manage to accomplish this feat.

To help bolster the worldbuilding, Forsyth has clearly poured in many hours of research to ensure make all the historical elements are accurate as they can be. I like the use of the Napoleonic Wars as a back-drop, but the wars and the major players themselves are not immediately part of the story; however, the social/political ramifications of the Napoleonic Wars impact the plot and characters greatly. It is very amusing for Napoleon constantly being referred to as the ‘Ogre’ and that his menacing presence can potentially wreak havoc on all the characters’ lives at any given moment.  There is a small section in the middle where the Napoleonic Wars are at center stage, during Napoleon’s adventure with his Grand Armee attempting to invade Russia.  The awful preparation and the savageness of this part of the war come alive. For further proof of Forsyth’s dedication and love for her subjects, do realize that Forsyth tracks down one of Dortchen’s descendants and found Dortchen’s memoirs and letters to ensure the book is as authentic as possible.

Another amazing thing that adds to the authenticity of the book is the strong cast of characters. Every character—with only one or two exceptions—is multi-faceted, interesting, and mostly charming. If Forsyth ever wants to write a spin-off featuring any of the other characters as the protagonist I will gladly read it, even if it is something as mundane as one of the Wild girls’ life while they are trying to secure a beau. It is particularly heartwarming to read that despite all the petty fights and arguments amongst the Wild sisters, there is a very strong emphasis on the close sibling relationship. It also complements the Grimm brothers and their younger sister Lotte, as they are the perfect picture of charming neighbours. Boisterous and clever and entertaining, none of the Grimm family members let their poverty spoil their mood very much and it is a warm family to be around. I think it is due to the strong ensemble of teenagers that make me adore the first third of the book the most, as it explores Dortchen’s relationship with everyone around her, not just Williem. Since I already know the ending of Dortchen/Williem relationship, I am not as intrigued or invested in their relationship as much as Dortchen’s relationships with everyone else, particularly her various sisters and her best friend Lotte. However, I will have to say that the relationship between Dortchen and Williem does not appear out of nowhere; there is plenty of build-up and it starts off with a very solid friendship and neighbourly friendliness as well as a love for wonderful folk tales.

Dortchen herself is a survivor in every sense; she lives through the terrifying Napoleonic wars as well as some troubling times in her family. And as a sister in the middle of a very large family, she has her quirks and talents such as being able to whip up a meal from any ingredients and telling wonderful stories with her brilliant imagination.  The story is charming as any fairy tale, but there are plenty of dark twists along the way. There are some very intense moments—both emotionally and psychologically—that heavily impacts Dortchen and how she eventually reaches her happily ever after. Aside from the obvious antagonist (Napoleon), there is another antagonist that is much closer at home and just as deadly, but what I find really interesting is that the way the person is written I did not realize that the person is a huge threat until much too late.

Finally, the most magical element in a story about the Grimm brothers is the incorporation of actual fairy tales. There are so many fairy tales throughout this book; from the characters to the Grimm brothers who quickly scribble it down and transcribe it for eventual publication as well as excerpts from the most famous and interesting Grimm fairy tales as section beginnings. It is especially fun to see how Forsyth will weave a particular section of the book around the fairy tale and draws any parallels to her own story’s plot. If you are a huge fairy tale fan or are interested in the origins of fairytales, definitely give this book a try as it explores how fairy tales are collected and preserved as well as the power of fairy tales.

I will say the only thing that I am slightly let down by is how the plot will meander sometimes—this is a very long book and Forsyth manages to add many details to ensure that her characters are fully developed—but there are times where I am waiting for the plot to move along. I cannot say that this is a book focused on character development, but there are many slice-of-life events that occur that slowly build up the plot in between all the wars. While this is marketed as a historical fiction that focuses on the charming romance between Dortchen Wild and Williem Grimm, it can also be viewed as a coming-of-age story for Dortchen Wild. And to be honest, I much rather spend time with Dortchen Wild. I cannot ask for a more charming protagonist or a more quirky delightful bunch.

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