Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge’s most famous work, was first published in 1865, and is still in print 150 years later. The story of fifteen-year-old Hans, his parents, and twelve-year-old sister, Gretel, is an exciting, and at times, heartrending tale, but it was written when a more leisurely writing style was popular. The 1860s was not a cut-to-the-chase era of literature, writers would sometimes pause in the storytelling to slip in lessons on the importance of hard work, kindness, or – if the writer was Mrs. Dodge – Dutch culture and history.
The story is set in the Netherlands, formerly called Holland. The Brinkers are poor, though Mrs. Brinker and the children do what they can to earn a little money. Mr. Brinker worked on the dikes until a fall ten years earlier, when head injuries left him incapable of communicating. Most days he sat barely moving, but he had spells of violent anger, endangering whomever is within striking distance. Many in the neighborhood call the Brinkers’ home the “idiot’s cottage”.
It is winter, and Hans and Gretel spend their brief periods of free time skating on the frozen canals, using wooden runners Hans had carved, for there was no money for metal ice skates. Both children dream of winning the upcoming race where silver skates would be awarded to the fastest boy and girl.
Even more important to Hans is finding a way to earn enough to pay a doctor to cure his father. He chances to meet up with gruff Dr. Boekman, the most famous surgeon in Holland. Hans offers the surgeon the few coins he has, and vows to work all his life to pay for him to come see his father. Dr. Boekman takes an interest in the case, and agrees to treat Mr. Brinker at no cost. He promises to come the following week, after he returns from a trip.
The Brinkers are cheered by the prospect of the doctor’s visit, but when Hans and Gretel are skating near their home a cry is heard. Hans knows immediately that their father has done something to frighten their normally stoic mother, so they tear off their skates and rush home to help her.
At this dramatic stage of the story Mary Mapes Dodge chooses to leave the Brinkers and begin to tell what I refer to as Selected Short Subjects. (Though one of the subjects isn’t all that short.)
First we learn about the festival of Saint Nicholas on December 6th, when well-behaved children of Holland receive toys and candy. There is a charming holiday scene at the home of a wealthy neighbor, and when it is finished I am ready to return to the troubles at the Brinker household.
But Mrs. Dodge had other ideas, and she spends 22 chapters telling about several boys of the neighborhood who take a long skating trip to see the important sights of Holland. The reader learns about Dutch history, and about the boys’ many adventures. It would have made an interesting separate story, but it was hard for me to fully appreciate what is taking place, for I wanted to get back to the Brinkers’ troubles.
A few chapters into the boys’ trip they meet up with Hans, who is traveling to fetch Dr. Boekman, for he fears his father is dying. More is learned about the Brinkers’ troubles, but there is many a skating trip adventure before Mrs. Dodge returns the story to the run-down cottage, where the doctor has come.
At that point the story becomes a fast-paced, page-turning read. Dr. Boekman performs a successful operation, and Mr. Brinker “awakens” from his injuries, unable to recall anything about the past ten years.
Soon after that comes the long-awaited skating race, and a little later two important mysteries are solved. At the very end comes a wrap-up where the reader is told what happens to all major characters in the years to come.
Anyone who reads Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates learns about the brave Brinker family, as well as the history of an interesting country. You also learn about “invented” history, for Mrs. Dodge has the school students reading about a little boy who saved the countryside from flooding by spending the night with his finger plugging a small hole in the dike. A good story, but no one in the Netherlands a/k/a Holland ever read it out of a history book!
The second time I read the novel I skimmed over the skating trip in order to move on to the the main story line. But perhaps on a day when I’m in a cultural mood I’ll read only the section on the trip, to learn about the sights of Holland. And in December I can read the novel’s chapter on the Festival of Saint Nicholas.
That’s the advantage of a novel that has both a main story, plus selected short subjects. You can read everything all at once, or pick and chose what to enjoy on any given day.