Hans Brinker

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Repost from 2008; I promised some people. Will be in 2 parts: this reading notes post with some afterthoughts added that I originally posted later, and a deconstruction of the names. Somewhat edited (for instance the link to the book text now points to Gutenberg; it wasn’t there yet when I first posted it).

I don’t know what prompted it [ETA: a daughter trying to keep a beer bottle from squirting by plugging it with her finger], but I read Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. And couldn’t stop reading it once I was underway, though it’s very dated (that figures; it was published in 1865) and it kept me wishing I had a time machine so I could go and be Mary Mapes Dodge’s copy editor, because she badly needed one. It’s surprisingly gripping.

Note that Hans Brinker is not the name of the boy with his finger in the dike. It’s a story-in-the-story in this book. That story is not, and never has been, something that every Dutch child knows; it’s only known in the Netherlands from translations and retellings of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. I shudder to think that whole generations of children in the United States had most of their knowledge of the Netherlands from this book alone. No wonder so many tourists arrive with serious misconceptions.

The style is uneven: pleasantly entertaining narrative with sudden outbreaks of lyricism (but that’s the nineteenth century for you) and expositions of history (ditto, I think) or heavily coloured accounts of Dutch culture. I won’t go into the facts I think she got wrong. Some of those may be things that really were that different in the mid-19th century (but did literally every man smoke a pipe all the time? and did harbour workmen work completely silently?), some may be because her only source for Dutch culture at the time was one old couple who had emigrated to the United States as children. That also explains why she states that there’s ice thick enough to skate on the whole winter: the first decades of the nineteenth century were the tail-end of the Little Ice Age, and the old couple may have remembered that from their own childhood.

She got a whole lot of facts right, too. The middle part of the book, chapters 10-14 and 16-31 (of 48), is a travelogue and history lesson, not really relevant to the plot so most abridged versions cut it. Here it’s obvious that the author did do her research. The Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis still exist, and still contain most of the things the characters see there.

It’s the wrong names –some spectacularly wrong– that vex me most, and I’ll have a shot at them. The most striking one is Voostenwalbert Schimmelpenninck: the surname does exist, but nobody except this boy in the book has ever been called Voostenwalbert. Ewoud Sanders wrote in 2007 (NRC, article sadly no longer available online) that Dodge might have read the name of “W. Albert van Oosten” written indistinctly as “v.oosten w.albert”. I’ve put the deconstruction of names in another post because it was getting long, and I thought people might want only the list.

There’s a statue of the boy with his finger in the dike in Spaarndam. According to this rather good article about Hans Brinker (in Dutch), it was placed there for the American tourists, who all wanted to see exactly where the boy had put his finger in the dike. Also, I recommend reading past the pictures of the statue in the first link.

For months after I posted this Hans Brinker kept coming to my attention by a kind of serial serendipity. Jaap de Berg wrote in the language column of  Trouw basically what I wrote above, prompted by a news item in another paper about President Obama: “as if he were a modern-day Hansje Brinker, able to do heroic work with one finger kilometers under water”. (Again, the link has disappeared.)

This made me look up the Wikipedia article, which turns out to be surprisingly accurate and complete. And of course, there’s a non-zero chance that the boy with his finger in the dike –if, which I doubt, he existed at all– was also called Hans, or rather Hannes.

(Also, a student wanted to quote my names deconstruction; recognition at last!)

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