I don’t think I’ve ever had as many mixed feelings about a read-aloud as I have about Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge. When I started reading this story to the girls way back in July, I had no idea that it would take us two months (more or less) to finish it or that it is as dense and detailed as it is. All I can say is whew. Between the Dutch names and the travel log commentary, I felt like giving up on it on more than one occasion. However, we have a longstanding tradition of never giving up on a book, mainly because the girls never want to (I’m the wimp here, I admit it!) When it was all said and done on Friday afternoon, I ended the book with teary eyes and a happy sigh, and I think I can say that it was worth the hours of mental and lingual gymnastics it took for me to read this one effectively to my girls.
You see, the problem is that there are basically two threads running through Hans Brinker. First, there’s the story of the Brinker family, a family on the brink of financial ruin because the father was injured while working on the dykes a decade earlier and has been “an idiot” (used here in its old, clinical definition) since. The children, Hans and Gretel, are brave and loving children, but are treated somewhat as outcasts in the village because of their poverty. This part of the story is lovely, really–it’s all about village life and ice skating (lots and lots of skating!), and it involves several little mysteries. I won’t provide any spoilers here, but the mysteries are heart-warming, if a little too coincidental. (I don’t mind a deus ex machina here or there, myself.)
The second thread, and the one that almost drove me to distraction, is the one that involves a cadre of the village boys (teenagers, really, but all the “children” in this book are older–but seem much younger, thankfully–than we expect them to behave nowadays) who take “a long skating journey” of fifty miles from their village of Broek to The Hague. Joining these Dutch boys on their journey is a British cousin of one of the boys, so what follows is an opportunity for them to show off their country in grand style: they take Ben to every landmark and place of note between Broek and The Hague. We learn all about a variety of Dutch curiosities–artists, ice breaking equipment, famous churches, you-name-it. Have I mentioned that this is the part that frustrated me? :-) I love to travel and I’m as interested in other countries and cultures as I can be, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why, oh why, Mary Mapes Dodge had to break up her lovely little story with almost 200 (yes!) pages of travel commentary.
And then I read the preface. (There’s a very good reason why it’s called the PREface.)
This little work aims to combine the instructive features of a book of travels with the interest of a domestic tale.
Ah-ha! But wait! There’s more!
Should this simple narrative serve to give my young readers a just idea of Holland and its resources, or present true pictures of its inhabitants and their every-day life, or free them from certain current prejudices concerning that noble and enterprising people, the leading desire in writing it will have been satisfied.
Somehow, knowing that she meant for the story to be read that way made it a wee bit easier to take for me. Still, though, if it hadn’t been for my girls insisting that we keep on keeping on, I would’ve cast this story aside long about page 125. I do think that they have a sense of what life in Holland was like, and I was surprised every time I questioned them about something that I had just read–they could almost always answer my questions!
Our copy of Hans Brinker, which I’ve linked above and here to used copies at Amazon, is illustrated by Paul Galdone, a Caldecott honoree best known for his re-tellings of fairy tales. The illutrations are simple line drawings interspersed throughout the text.
I’ve also learned that Mary Mapes Dodge was the first editor of St. Nicholas magazine, a fact that I find interesting after reading about E.B. White’s early experiences as a writer. As a child, White had some of his writing published in St. Nicholas, as did quite a few other well-known writers.
So am I recommending Hans Brinker? I don’t know. It takes a lot of perseverance, both for the reader and the listener. However, there are many, many worthwhile things about it, the least but most entertaining of which is that you will get to say the name Jacob Poot approximately 173 times, and your children will laugh great belly laughs about it the first 52 times. :-) (I mention this in kind-hearted jest, having stumbled upon this site that claims many inaccuracies in the naming of people and places in Hans Brinker. The site also mp-3 files of the correct pronunciations of the Dutch words, but alas, I cannot get it to work.)
(Doubleday, 1954; first published 1875)
Of course, I have to link back to this post in which I review The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden, a book also set in Holland, as well as this post at A Spirited Mind in which Catherine highlights a nice assortment of picture books set in Holland.
We celebrated the completion of this protracted read-aloud experience with a showing of the 1962 Disney adaptation of the book. While my busy-ness during the viewing of this movie (I was preparing lots of outgrown little girl clothes for a consignment sale and riding herd on the DLM) prevents me from giving it a thorough treatment here, I can say that while many of the details are left out or changed altogether, it retains the spirit of the story. My eldest daughter swooned at the romantic element (when and how did this happen, I ask?), which is very tame but emphasized much more than I ever did in my reading of the story. The tour-guide parts of the story are achieved not with a bunch of teenaged boys skating through Holland, but with a voice-over narration. The scenery in the story is lovely, and my girls (who don’t watch much television, so your mileage may vary) were not disappointed.
Have you ever set aside a long read-aloud? Do you have a certain rule that you go by (maybe reading so many pages before abandoning it)?