The Horn Book Magazine asked Mitali Perkins, “What’s the strangest children’s book you’ve ever enjoyed?”
At first glance, there’s absolutely no compelling reason why a young immigrant from India would choose Hans Brinker, or, The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland by Mary Mapes Dodge as a favorite read.
And yet I did.
Writing in 1865, Dodge made blunders we still see today when authors attempt to cross borders: 1) She was overly reverential about the Dutch, portraying them as collectively hardworking, thrifty, patriotic, and sacrificial. 2) She introduced an otherwise fairly useless foreign character (Ben Dobbs) through whose eyes equally foreign readers were supposed to see this “exotic” culture. 3) She relied exclusively on secondhand sources (John L. Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic and The History of the United Netherlands and conversations with one family of immigrant Dutch neighbors in the United States), never visiting the Netherlands until after the novel was published. 4) Thanks to these sources, half the book reads like a sightseeing guide, with museums, art, and history described in excruciating detail that threatens to choke the flow of the story.
And yet it doesn’t.
I loved the book and still do. Dodge wove together three storytelling strands: a compelling Rip Van Winkle–esque mysterious plot in which two family’s lives are intertwined; teen characters whose voices still ring true thanks to Dodge’s mastery of humor and understanding of young romance and friendship; a sense of place so strong I feel ice gliding under a pair of imaginary skates from the first page.
Plot, place, people: braid the three well and you’ve got a timeless story. I’m loaning the book to a Dutch friend to see if inauthenticity makes this novel completely unreadable for her, because my joy in the story is a bit unsettling: if the storytelling is good, are cultural blunders more forgivable or more dangerous?
From the March/April 2013 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine.