The True Story of Hansel and Gretel – Louise Murphy
In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel”. They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children.
A haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children, and tells a resonant, riveting story.
This novel truly was haunting… that is truly the best word I can come up with to describe the story in this book. It all felt so real, which made everything I was reading that much more intense. True, the book was completely fiction – this specific story did not actually happen – however, I’m sure there were plenty of cases of parents leaving their children to fend for themselves instead of going to the camps, people “adopting” Jewish children and passing them off as non-Jewish to save them, etc. I was definitely captivated by The True Story of Hansel and Gretel and even though I knew it wasn’t a true story, it sure felt like one at times.
I felt Murphy did a fantastic job developing the characters, especially within the context of the war. A huge theme of the book was how much war changes people – both those causing the war and those suffering from it – and I felt like I really got to know the characters, within the framework of their struggles and also how their personalities truly were, outside of their misery. The writing was beautiful – I am not usually one to notice great writing, but in this case something about it really struck me. I can’t really pinpoint what, but it had something to do with the balance between the crudeness of war and everything it brings, interspersed with very real, tender human relationships… something about the way Murphy put together both elements very seamlessly I just really loved.
I would absolutely recommend The True Story of Hansel and Gretel. It’s not the easiest read, and it does pack quite a bit of language and violence (pretty realistic, though, it is a war she’s writing about after all), but overall this novel is quite stunning.