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The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival Paperback – Print, July 29, 2003

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 297 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; First Edition edition (July 29, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142003077
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142003077
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (130 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #197,106 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A provocative transformation of the classic fairy tale into a haunting survival story set in Poland during WWII, Murphy's second novel (after The Sea Within) is darkly enchanting. Two Jewish children, a girl of 11 and her seven-year-old brother, are left to wander the woods after their father and stepmother are forced to abandon them, frantically begging them never to say their Jewish names, but to identify themselves as Hansel and Gretel. In an imaginative reversal of the original tale, they encounter a small woman named Magda, known as a "witch" by villagers, who risks her life in harboring them. The story alternates between the children's nightmarish adventures, and their parents' struggle for survival and hope for a safe reunion. This mirror image of the fairy tale is deliberately disorienting, as Murphy describes the horrors of the outside world compared with the haven inside Magda's hut, and the fear and anguish of the other people who conspire to save the children and protect their own families, too. The na‹ve siblings are only half-conscious of much of this, though they are perfectly aware of their peril should they be discovered. The graphic details-the physical symptoms of near starvation, the infestations of lice, the effects of bitter cold-make it plain that this is the grimmest kind of fable. Eventually, the Nazis indulge in wholesale slaughter, and the children barely survive, hiding and on the run. No reader who picks up this inspiring novel will put it down until the final pages, in which redemption is not a fairy tale ending but a heartening message of hope.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The stepmother persuades the father to abandon the children in the forest, where they find shelter in the cottage of a witch, who locks them in a cage. It's the scariest of all fairy tales, and it's retold here with gripping realism as a Holocaust novel set in Poland near the end of World War II. Murphy brings the genocide history up close through the horrifying daily experience of 11-year-old Jewish Gretel and her younger brother, who save each other from the worst with the help of a few brave villagers. The Grimms' story is always there like a dark shadow intensifying the drama as the searing narrative transforms the old archetypes. The stepmother and the Romani witch are quiet heroes who sacrifice themselves to save the children, while their father is with the partisan army, desperate to find his family. The children may follow the trail home in the end, but the gruesome reality in the village and the forest prevents any sentimental uplift. The witch does land up in the oven, in a concentration camp. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

Characters well developed.
It's a story about doing what it takes to survive, about the love between siblings, and it's a story about finding hope amidst despair.
Amazon Customer
I loved how the author used all the elements of the original fairy tale into this retold Holocaust story.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Tamela Mccann TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is quite well-written, with believable characters and a strong, rich plot that flows well. Hansel and Gretel, unwillingly abandoned by their father and stepmother into the Polish forest, find themselves taken in by Magda, the village "witch". They must protect their Jewishness at all costs, but they also must just survive against the horrors of the Nazi SS. This book is not for the faint of heart by any means; Murphy spares no punches with the violence and the realities of Poland at the time. A few of the characters, such as the Oberfuhrer, seem over the top, and motivations aren't always well-defined. While not the first writer to weave a Holocaust story around a fairy tale, Murphy does it well and leaves an impression I'm sure I won't soon forget. But for the minor flaws already mentioned, this one would rate a solid 5 stars. Recommended reading, but don't expect a light tale. Be prepared to have your emotions rubbed raw.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By R. Carey on June 3, 2005
Format: Paperback
I picked up this one at my local Borders. At first I was quite captured by the cover, and then when I read the back, I had to have it. Anything to do with fairytales captures my eye.

The book starts off with Hansel and Gretel (renamed to hide their 'Jewishness') being left to fend for themselves in a Poland forest. Their father and stepmother took them there to save them from the Nazis, which were close on their tale. Although Hansel and Gretel are only children, they are incredibely smart and strong willed. Gretel leads the way with her younger brother in tote, as they brave the forest in search of someone to take them in. After a few days of this, this find a little cottage at the edge of a small village. The cottage is inhabited by Magda, "the witch." Although a bit frightening at first, Magda is really harmless and in the end, she is willing to risk everything to save Hansel and Gretel from the Germans. This is a new twist on the classic fairytale. It includes many of the original elements of the 'real' story, such as the trail of bread crumbs and the oven. There are also, of course, many new characters who were not in the fairytale. This includes the beautiful Nelka (Magda's neice), and Telek, the outsider. Both characters play a pivotal role in the lives of Hansel and Gretel, and help to shape their characters. Nelka and Telek also bring a bit of romance into the novel, to lighten up things a bit. I would also have to say that Telek is my favorite character.

I really really enjoyed this book. This is not for the light-hearted. It features some truly horrific events that occur. I knew when I picked up the book, it was based on the WWII era, but for some reason I did not expect to read some of the things I read. This includes gas chambers and mutilation of children.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Terri Windling on July 20, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a beautifully written book, and I recommend it highly to all fans of literary fairy tale retellings. My only quibble is with the reviews more than with the book, which fail to mention that Murphy's idea is not an original one. This book follows in the footsteps of Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (1992) which uses the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale to tell a story about War World II Holocaust victims in Poland, and Lisa Goldstein's story "Breadcrumbs and Stones" (in the anthology Snow White, Blood Red, 1993) which uses the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale (as Murphy does here) to tell a story about the Holocaust. Also, there's Peter Rushford's novel Kindergarten, now sadly out of print, which uses a number of Grimms fairy tales to tell a story not only about the Holocaust but also about more recent acts of European terrorism. I welcome Murphy's book into this tradition -- it's a fine addition and it's always good to see what new writers can do with fairy tales. But I do believe the reviewers are lax here not to review this book in its proper context.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Julie Jones on May 15, 2005
Format: Paperback
Unlike so many other books about the Holocaust, Louise Murphy chose to set her story in the cold, wintery landscape of occupied Poland. Though we did not read of concentration camps and ghettos (except briefly), Murphy brought to the forefront how horrific conditions were in much of Europe, even in the small villages that one might think were untouched.

The interweaving of fairytale motifs with this war story was perplexing. I appreciated the undoing of the usual stereotypes: the stepmother was protective, not evil; the witch was nurturing, not selfish; the oven was a haven, not a weapon; and the forest was a good place to be lost in, not bad. But some of the motifs of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale seemed too contrived and took away from this story. For instance - the oven, and the path of breadcrumbs seemed forced inclusions in THIS story of Hansel and Gretel. A story as haunting as this one would be stronger without taking the reader down the path of a childhood tale.

I doubt I will forget this book anytime soon. I may forget some details, but the harsh, cold horror of the war and the effects on this Polish village will remain vivid in my mind.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By S. Wampler on May 21, 2012
Format: Paperback
I began reading this book in Costco while waiting for my car to be finished. I thought it was well-written and poignant. Of course it was about the sad and difficult subject of the Holocaust, but at first the characters were dealing in a thought-provoking and inspiring way with the difficult circumstances. I appreaciated the old woman's willingness to help the children despite the danger it brought to her. I went ahead and bought the book to finish at home.

However, the author became increasingly dark in describing the trials of the village people and the children. The unnecessary sexual associations to the Oberfurer's tortures and the rape of the main character changed the tone of the book from serious to evil. Why did all of the struggles have a sexual aspect - from the Oberfurer demanding that village women clean the office while naked to the rape of a 12 year old girl? The blood transfusions were torture for Nelda - why add an erotic aspect to the scene? Instead of wanting to finish the book to see if the children would be reunited with their father, and how their relationship with the old woman would conclude, I threw it away.
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