“The True Story of Hansel and Gretel” by Louise Murphy
A few months back, I had my reading heart busted wide open by Ramona Ausubel’s “No One is Here Except All Of Us,” which told the story of a village of Jews that give up their past and start anew to survive during WW2.
The book was brutal, and beautiful, and unforgettable.
Louise Murphy’s “The True Story of Hansel and Gretel” has a lot in common with Ausubel’s book, and I mean that in the best way possible. Both are powerfully written stories of young people enduring the horrors of World War 2, and both will destroy you as a reader. But isn’t that the point of reading, to get destroyed and/or uplifted once in a while?
In Murphy’s transplanted fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel are the new names given to a Jewish brother and sister as their father and stepmother send them into the woods to keep them alive while on the run from the Germans. Along the way, they meet an old “witch” named Magda who takes them in, and they begin a new life as orphans taken in by this woman who lives on the outskirts of a small village. Danger isn’t far away, though, as the village is controlled by the Germans, the commander of whom has his eyes on Magda’s beautiful great-niece.
It’s a clever play on a fairy tale that’s familiar to everyone. All the famous elements of the original tale are present. There’s candy, a cage, true love, creatures in the woods, and of course there’s an enormous oven that comes into play in a wonderful twist of writing. Murphy boldly humanizes characters that are too often stock crones – the Stepmother and the Witch – reminding us that life is rarely as black and white as fairy tales would paint it to be.
“The True Story of Hansel and Gretel” is very seriously not for kids. It’s a book I recommend, if not simply for the quality of Murphy’s powerful writing, then as a historical reminder of what was and what should never be again.