Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge
Illustrated by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge
For a book that few people in the 21st century have actually read, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates is surprisingly well-known. Mention the title and indistinct recollections of wooden shoes, an exhilarating race, and the boy with his finger in the dyke will surface. The book was an immediate success when it was published in 1865 and the story continues to inspire tourism in Holland a century and a half later. All of which is a testament to the excitement of the tale.
Hans and Gretel Brinker, virtuous children who remain plucky in the face of hardship, live with their parents in a humble cottage on the banks of a frozen canal. Their father suffered a head injury while working on the dykes a decade earlier which left him witless. Locked within his inaccessible memory are the whereabouts of their 1,000 guilder savings and the secret of a mysterious watch entrusted to his care. While the children struggle to obtain help for their father from the gruff Dr. Boekman, their spirits are buoyed by their anticipation of the upcoming race, the prize for which will be silver skates. The plot is unabashedly melodramatic and the cast of supporting characters unabashedly stereotypic: the nasty, bitter Carl Schummel who gets his comeuppance in the end, the fat, good-natured, prone-to-napping Jacob Poot, the generous burgomaster’s daughter, Hilda van Gleck, the empty-headed coquettish Katrinka Flack, the English Benjamin Dobbs who provides an opportunity for comic relief (otherwise rare) when others speak to him in heavily accented English (“Penchamin, I no likes be called Tutch – dat ish no goot. I bees a Hollander.”) All of which is appealing to children.
What is less appealing is the encyclopedia of trivia about Holland, ranging from the carvings on Dutch pipes to catalogues of museum contents. Mary Mapes Dodge wanted to present an instructional travelogue, a somewhat audacious goal, given that she had never been to Holland. The book is flawed by an irrelevant subplot which accompanies a group of boys on a 100 mile sightseeing tour. But while some of the descriptions are insufferably dry (e.g., bits of obscure Dutch history, descriptions of gallery paintings), Dodge manages to pack a remarkable amount of information into the pages, all of which paints a detailed portrait of mid-nineteenth century Dutch life. As our world warms, images of ice skating Hollanders, once such a defining symbol of Dutch culture, are becoming a thing of the past, and it is worth having a text that captures a vanishing way of life.
The Dutch are somewhat disparaging of Dodge, the self-styled cultural historian, particularly when it comes to the boy with his finger in the dyke. The fictional story of “the hero of Haarlem” appeared in various guises in France, England, and the U.S. during the 1850’s, but it was Hans Brinker that transformed the boy into a popular icon as well as the personification of “the pluckiest little country on earth”.