In The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, Louise Murphy maintains the iconic elements of her fairy-tale source material: the brother and sister, the breadcrumbs, the witch in the woods, the oven. But, through situating the story in Nazi occupied Poland, she makes those elements fit her own means. The oven is the clearest example of this: yes, the witch shoves Hansel and Gretel in the oven, but it is to save them, not harm them. Indeed, setting the twins-lost-in-the-woods story in such a historical moment certainly raises the stakes: as Jews on the run from the Nazis, the consequences of being discovered are much more traumatic than just a vengeful step-mother.
Murphy’s storytelling is at its sharpest when it is unexpected – and given the premise, those moments are unfortunately few and far between. Her secondary and original characters are conflicted, intriguing, smartly crafted. The Nazi Major secretly despises the SS officer in the town. Telek is appointed to maim all of the blonde children of his Polish village so they will not be removed by the SS to be reared in Germany. Nelka is required to give blood transfusions to a healthy SS officer, her infant held captive to ensure she shows up at the appointed times. Each of these characters, from within and without the system, ask: How do you save yourself and resist what is wrong? Can you? Bar none, the most powerful moment in the novel is when Gretel, having been driven insane, sits in the snow with Telek singing Christmas carols taught to her by the witch and arranging the stubs of eight candles in the snow. A Jewish girl pretending to be Christian driven insane by the Nazis and practicing the customs of two faiths at war as if they were meant to go together. The image is beautiful, haunting, unexpected, layered rich with subtext; Louise Murphy at her best as a storyteller.
Sadly, most of the novel plods along well worn twists and turns, both of the familiar fairy-tale story and of growing body of literature about Nazi occupation. It was almost inevitable, with so many secret Jews and a “witch,” that at least one major character would find themselves sent to a concentration camp. And, it was almost inevitable that the major characters would either meet a desperate end, or avoiding that fate, live happily ever after in the fairytale mode. Though Louise Murphy is for the most part successful in meshing her two genres, the typical endings for each are at odds: Murphy must choose complete desolation or happily-ever-after. Choose she does, but the result seemed not to do justice to all the trauma her characters have experienced.
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel won’t grab you by the lapels and force you to burn the midnight oil to find out what happens next, which is exactly the element this book straddling two ultra-familiar genres needs.
Upcoming: A River Runs Through It and other stories by Norman Maclean, Electric Arches by Eve Ewing, & The Cider House Rules by John Iriving