“Do not struggle when the hook of a word pulls you into the air of truth and you cannot breathe.” ― Louise Murphy

I want you to know that I’m unsure of everything I’ve written here, but it had to be done.

Putting tree books aside (The Giving Tree, The Lorax, Pocahontas) the best stories of childhood are myths and fairytales.  Most little girls grow up with dreams of princess crowns gleaming in the castle of their backyard and most little boys carry swords and special powers in their holsters.  I wish I could pinpoint exactly where it began for me.  Was I in a crib when I realized I had golden locks, or pondered the word “happy.”

I can remember at twelve thinking goosebumps were a sign that my grandfather was with me.  This is more of me being a superstitious child, but when did I realize that souls come back?  This was all the least of my worries though…

Let’s run through my list:

  • Can’t hang any body parts over the bed because they will be licked (As told in Scary Stories & also found here).
  • Can’t sleep if I think Jafar is hiding in the hallway because he would be shorter than my bed (I nightmare over old Jafar from the beginning of Aladdin).
  • The black crack of my closet where someone can peak out.
  • The dark, more importantly small, dark places like pantries.

My night lamp from the street.

I’ve had these fears for as far back as I can remember.  I must have tortured myself laying awake in the dark and staring into the bathroom mirror across the hall just waiting for something ominous.  At thirteen, you wouldn’t be able to find me in the bed sheets.  I would cocoon myself, head and all, under the spread.  It got to where my mother would be so nervous I’d stop breathing, that she’d remove the covers from my face after I fell asleep.  She’d also have to tell me that no robbers would attack our house because they would be caught far more easily with the street light shining through my bedroom window.

Fairytales, horror stories, myths, urban legends, oral traditions, epics; all of these have been in our history for centuries.  I might dare to say that everything told resonates from these voices, these campfire treasures, these men in sturdy boots carrying brides to the clutches of witches.  It’s like the thirteen year olds who think everything they know about love comes from Disney. I assumed entering high school that finding my sweetheart would be simple.  I didn’t understand the notion that men could be less than their hero tradition. We grow up with these morals and these pro/con lists of what’s good, and what’s bad without ever really realizing they’re incorrect until the moment of mistake.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy is the story when those pro/con lists don’t work.  It’s the story of the forgotten and lost.  We all say, “that would never happen,” and yet today we have candidates for president who want to take away public education.  DEAR LORD.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is the story of Nazi Germany.  In my mind it should replace Anne Frank for high school reading lists.  At this point, I’m not sure my generation even realizes the horror of the one before us.  This morning my father was reading the news and said, “40% of women in the US have never been married” and I immediately thought, this is the baby boom – lovers died in wars and the women waiting on them stayed alone for the rest of their lives.  My generation (I hate speaking in generalizations but I think I’m just going to do it) has forgotten that people who thought they were getting into the bath, finally drowning their lice, were gassed naked in chambers.  We forget that a whole population of Jewish children were wiped out in camps, by bullets to the head, and the idea that they were a subculture, less than human.

I think, if anything, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel awakened in me the notion that things happen that are beyond our control, yes, but more things happen that we choose not to control because we’re weak, or we’re scared, or we’re alone in our ideas, or we watch the man without listening to his words.  Hitler’s greatest power was language and he used it point perfectly to discard whole worlds of people. And finally, FINALLY, Louise Murphy has written a book that puts the real in front of us.

I grew up thinking Jews died, it was the holocaust, and some survived living in attics.  I didn’t grow up thinking people were hanged for stealing food after living on one potato a day for a whole family, or that pre-pubescent girls could be penetrated in the cold woods of their backyards.  I didn’t think a wheelchair meant death, or singing too loud in public meant beatings.  However, in Nazi Germany it did.

And I know, I know this book is a work of fiction.  But sometimes fiction tells us more about ourselves, and our reality than the world is willing to tell.

I want you to read this book because I don’t want you to forget what happened.  I also want you to read this book because it’s a damn good book and the writing is beautiful.

Louise Murphy writes about Nazi Germany using the classic fairytale Hansel and Gretel.  Hansel and Gretel is the story of two children left in the woods by an evil stepmother.  They happen on a witch’s house made of candy where she takes them in and feeds them until actually trying to eat them without success.  That’s the shortest synopsis I think I could have written.  In Murphy’s fairytale, Hansel and Gretel are forced into the woods for being Jews and taken in by the village “witch,” Magda, who winds up being my favorite character in the entire tale.  While Murphy uses the fairytale in such a seamless way that it isn’t over done, it still has the classic elements like the bread crumbs, and the oven.  Honestly, while reading, I didn’t even realize at what points the fairytale motifs were shining through and what points the tale was just alive on its own accord.

This tale is dark, and compelling.  While you’re horrified at the behaviors of grown men and women, you’re also horrified by the culture, and the unexplainable moments.  For instance, rather than raping a character, a Nazi guard takes blood transfers from her starving body to make him feel more refreshed.   It’s these tidbits that are almost more dark than the ones meant to be devastating.  The constant humming of a character who has been traumatized is more haunting than the actual traumatizing moment.  It’s the left over resonance that really makes Murphy’s story unbelievable.  I feel the residue leaking through as I type this because I’m almost unsure of what to say, where I’m going, how I’m going to fight for this book to be read by everyone I know.

I love fiction because it makes you look at your world differently.  It makes you closer to those around you; you’re survivors, you’re living, you breathe air out of the same atmosphere, and yet you’re more alone than ever while reading.   I love fiction that let’s you do both, that let’s you share its story with others and I want to do this with all of you.  I want to know how you feel when the woods become dark, and Gretel’s legs are turning blue from their bareness against an iced log.   I want to know how the Brown Sister’s fantasies make you seize up in your chest and lungs.  I want to see where you break, and the words become everything and nothing.  I want you to know that in a way love and survival are the same idea.

I’m still scared of everything, but I’m comforted by the fact that love is the only idea worth keeping.

1955 film by Lotte Reiniger of Hansel and Gretel

33 thoughts on ““Do not struggle when the hook of a word pulls you into the air of truth and you cannot breathe.” ― Louise Murphy

  1. Let's CUT the Crap! says:

    I believe this is the most riveting review I’ve come across here. This title has now been added it to my already long list. It’s possible I’ll bypass some of the others because of your passionate recommendation. Thank you, once again.

    • Cassie says:

      Well geez, thanks. I wasn’t even sure I really liked it, so that makes me feel much better about it. Please let me know which books you enjoy and which ones you don’t when you get to them – or just what you though.

  2. literarywonderland says:

    Great post! Was not expecting to get slammed with the holocaust at the beginning but man, that sounds powerful.

    Adding it to the short list! Though I did just finish reading “The Reader” for the first time so I might need a break from Nazis. But I will get to it soon. Thank you for the recommendation! And may we always have fairy tales.

    • Cassie says:

      Haha, well good. I wasn’t either – had no idea where this post was going from beginning to end…just knew it had to get somewhere about that book. And you should probably take a break – I think you’re right – too much NAzis. Love that you say “And may we always have fairy tales.” LOVE LOVE LOVE! Thanks for commenting. : )

  3. avian101 says:

    Bravo! C. you’re my favorite book reviewer! The one I just read for the book written by Mrs. Murphy was sober and beautiful especially when was written by a young non Jewish woman. I do not hide my being Jewish and I wish all reviewers were as honest and decent as you are my dear Cassie. Thank you for that! You made my day! :)

    • Cassie says:

      You’re always so sweet – and say the most interesting things (I’m sure I’ve told you that before though). Good for you for not hiding anything, there’s absolutely no reason to – at all. I think anyones spirituality, religiosity is beautiful. And you’ve made my day, geez, I’m feeling wonderful now. : ) Thank you.

      • gajenn says:

        Picked up my copy today – will start it in a day or two when I finish “Packing for Mars”! Excited :)

      • gajenn says:

        Finished and posted a review (with a shout out to your far superior review). I loved it. Bleak and broken, beautiful and strong, disturbing and hopeful.

        As an aside, I wonder if you’ve read any Stewart O’Nan? I think you might like him if not. Start with “A Prayer for the Dying” is my thought.

  4. cookiejarprincess says:

    This may be the best book review I have ever read. I want to go to the bookstore right now and buy this book and read it immediately. You have a pretty amazing way with words yourself.

    • Cassie says:

      Well thank you so much, that’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in a while. Let me know how you feel about the book when you read it. I hear there’s another book with the motif of Briar Rose so I may have to read that one as well.

      • cookiejarprincess says:

        I’ve read Briar Rose. I really liked it; it was a very family-oriented story. I definitely recommend it.

  5. valerierlawson says:

    excellent review. any book that helps us experience that time period in a new way with an emotional impact can only be a good thing. i might also recommend the book thief by mark zusak, if you haven’t already read it.

    • Cassie says:

      I’ve read The Book Thief and while I loved it after finishing it, I really didn’t like it after stewing for a while. I have no idea why, NO CLUE. I’m just strange probably, haha. And thank you for the kind words.

  6. ratiganknits says:

    Alright! I’ll buy the book. Great review. Anything that keeps the horrors of Hitler and the Holocast in our memories is great. Society tends to go on with everyday life and forget about the rest of the world, others struggles, history, natural disasters, its human nature I suppose. I believe its the artists who keep the past alive.

  7. Alice says:

    I’m sorry, but I couldn’t read past “replace Anne Frank” in this review. It may well be a fantastic book but no novel, no fictionalization, should ever replace a true account. Particularly not in a matter like the Holocaust, where denial is still rampant and holding up a made-up story as the epitome of a teaching tool opens dangerous pathways, inviting the skeptical to distort history more than they already do. I love fiction and will defend its power to the ends of the earth, but in this matter I have a deep and serious moral problem with the use of fiction to teach this particular aspect of history. There are simply too many people who still reject it; I can’t see how using a retold fairy tale to teach the history would do anything but add fuel to their hateful fire.

    If indeed our generation is as oblivious to history as you suggest–and, yeah, you’re probably right–then Anne should be supplemented by other true accounts or by fiction written by people who actually experienced it, people like Imre Kertesz, Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, and of course Elie Wiesel. And anyone who is going to write or read about the Holocaust should probably take a look at Cynthia Ozick’s essays on the matter; she has two particularly useful ones, both collected in the volume Quarrel and Quandary, one about the appropriation of Anne Frank and another about the difficulties of writing fiction about the Holocaust.

    • Cassie says:

      Alice,

      I totally, definitely, 100% know what you’re saying and I’m sorry if I offended you. I do appreciate all the books you mentioned as true accounts especially Night and both Elie Wiesel’s fiction and non-fiction on the subject. What I meant to say (if I could re-write that sentence) is that I’m not sure if Anne Frank gives us an out on experiencing and realizing the true horror of what happened. I understand her appropriateness to the matter, and the importance of these true accounts, but when she is the ONLY thing high school or middle school students are reading on the subject, along with their history books, I’m not sure the young girl does the War justice. She writes beautifully and poetically, and she’s writing the truth as she sees it, and we can all relate to that.

      I think, in my case, Anne Frank gave me an out to those feelings because while we do know she was sent to a concentration camp after being arrested, that was never brought up in my schooling and I was just told she didn’t survive. Primo Levi says it MUCH better than I did, “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”

      I really appreciate your comment and it was completely justified. I do wish you had read on.

  8. Bea says:

    Although, I understand and agree with the above comment, I must add one thing. When I was in school, we read “Animal Farm” to help us to understand the Soviet Union and communism. It was a long time ago, but I do remember that it helped me to make sense of what the teacher was trying to say. Any book that helps us to understand a situation, a piece of history, is a good thing, especially if it tugs at our hearts in a way that makes us think.

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