H&GSometimes, while reading a good book I hear a buzzing, needling little voice floating around in the back of the mind.  Every time I try to capture it, it quickly dissolves away.   But it’s persistent and it generally ruins what would otherwise be a great reading experience.

I’ve spent the past two days completely riveted by this poignant and vivid  story of a young Jewish girl and her brother. Newly christened Hansel and Gretel,  they are abandoned by their stepmother and father in the woods of Poland.  Their journey toward survival is so heartbreaking and so real that I found myself wrapped in a blanket in my warm armchair, still shivering along with these two cold children hidden under leaves and snow.


I was so enthralled with the story that I only started to notice things going awry about halfway through and even then only because that voice kept egging me on.  There is a disembodied rape scene in which the girl doesn’t flinch and neither does the reader.  An allegedly distraught mother leaving her son with the enemy, while she has joyous sex (repeatedly) with her new boyfriend.  A little girl who goes inexplicably, instantly and completely crazy.  The story started to play in my head like a set of movie posters from Schindler’s List.  These emotionally charged events felt empty, ghostly.  Finally it occurred to me – the author paints her stories and its characters thinly in watercolor and the hues turner paler as they dry on the page.  Substance is missing. 

The title has something to do with it.  This is the Real Story, she purports.  But she knows it’s not.  More importantly the reader knows it’s not and the fact of it nags at the mind throughout the story.  The real Hansel and Gretel story is centuries old.  It is a shiny, well preserved apple to this beautiful orange presented to the reader. The title is smothering, impossibly ambitious,  and unfair to both the original tale and its successor.  Under a different edifice, this new story could have developed organically instead of dissolving into a misdirected derivative.

All of which makes it sound like I hate it, which I absolutely do not.  If I ignore the voice there are moments of beauty and tragedy that are compelling.  The death of Magda in the concentration camps is revealed in haunting detail. There is the violent and vital birth of Nelka’s baby.  And an old man’s attempt (perhaps success?) at redemption through murder.   Throughout the whole story, Hansel remains a character to cheer for and to wring your hands in worry over. 

Most important, like all good Holocaust books, this one reminds us of the tragic, brutal life these people led.   More like Weisel’s Night and less like Anne Frank’s diary, this is a tale of survival, of the daily struggle to survive the evils of men and war.  Parents send their children off to potential death in order to escape the certain death in front of them.  Villagers band together to save those who aren’t their own. And two children try to find their way by throwing away the crumbs of bread they can’t afford to lose.