November 20, 2011

Dodge: noble and enterprising

In the preface to her book Hans Brinker, or, The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, Mary Mapes Dodge wrote it aimed "to combine the instructive features of a book of travels with the interest of a domestic tale." The preface is dated November 20, 1865. Among the most famous in the novels is the story of a young boy who plugs a leaking dam with his finger.

Dodge intentionally wrote the book for children, but worked hard to stay true to Dutch legends. She studied the work of well-known writers of Dutch history, literature, and art, while also contacting friends in Holland to tell their own stories. One of her hopes was that others would come to appreciate Dutch culture and recognize its people as "noble and enterprising."

In the book, the reader is first introduced to the titular "silver skates" in chapter three. Hans Brinker and his sister Gretel are poor children suffering in the cold December weather in Holland. Like everyone in town, young and old, they skate on the frozen canal as an easy method of transportation. The two Brinker children, however, have cheap wooden skates they made themselves that don't work very well before becoming water-logged. When they hear of a children's skating race and the prize of beautiful silver skates, they want to take part, but know they can't. Then, a local teenager named Hilda offers them money, but only enough to buy one pair of skates.

Hans wants Gretel to take the money; she wants him to have it. But they also know they should not accept the valuable gift. Hilda offers to use the money as payment in exchange for Gretel crafting one of her beautiful wooden necklaces. For this reason, Hans says the new skates should be Gretel's:

"No, Gretel," he answered at last, "I can wait. Some day I may have money enough saved to buy a fine pair. You shall have these."

Gretel's eyes sparkled; but in another instant she insisted, rather faintly: "The young lady gave the money to you, Hans. I'd be real bad to take it."

Hans insists that she keep it and buy new skates. Sure enough, a few paragraphs later, another wooden necklace is commissioned and both Hans and Gretel have nice, metal skates. The story is sappy, featuring two children in the poorest of conditions, yet not even slightly bothered by their situation. They are modest, loving, and kind (to the point of being unrealistic). And the race for the prized silver skates is much later in the book.

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