Book review: ‘Hiddensee’ by Gregory Maguire


“The Nutcracker” ballet has become a staple of the Christmas season (the La Crosse Dance Centre is offering a Covid-safe streaming performance in March).

According to Wikipedia, the ballet is loosely based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King.” I saw the ballet several years ago at the Madison Civic Center. Not liking ballet and not knowing the story, I can’t say I appreciated it. Obviously, since it has become a holiday staple, many do. The nutcracker is a carved wooden toy. Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked,” has written a background story for the carver of the nutcracker. Titled “Hiddensee,” the book was the December choice of the Ontario Book Club.

“The boy,” as he is known at the beginning of the story, is being raised by an old woman and old man in the middle of a forest. With no visitors and no trips to town, the boy, Dirk, has little stimulation; his only education is the stories the old woman tells. The old man is a forester, and while Dirk is still young, he is taken to the forest to help the old man. In a story that’s fairytale-like, Dirk has a series of experiences that leave him lost and mystified in the forest. His only guides are a thrush and a gnome-handled knife in opposition to one another.

Eventually, Dirk finds his way to a minister, Pfarrer Johannes: “You may stay here and eat my food …” Dirk lives with Pastor Johannes and becomes his assistant. Dirk spends seven years there, gaining some insight and the last name of Drosselmeier.

At Pastor Johannes’ behest, Dirk Dosselmeier sets off to Meersburg with a message to the Roman Bishop there. He is redirected to the von Koenig “schloss.” The sudden appearance of a number of guests results in a kitchen helper role; he becomes a member of the summer staff. There is a small Catholic chapel on the property, and it is here that he is introduced to the music of Bach and to Felix, who proves to be a lifelong friend.

An assortment of events and the von Koenig family going back to Munich results in Dirk Dosselmeier going back to Meersburg to work for a paper merchant, Gerwig Pfeffer. Dirk proves to be an able assistant and often a caretaker for the two Pfeiffer boys.

Frau Pfeiffer (Nastaran) was an artist, reserved and intriguing. She and Dirk talked occasionally, and she speaks of grief and dreams of a secret garden. At some point, Dirk believes that a magic key to Nastaran’s secret garden is locked in a golden walnut. Nastaran walks in her sleep, seeking something unknown, perhaps a way into the garden. It is during one of these night walks that she drowns. Dirk is heartbroken, as he had fallen in love with her. He even carved a wooden nutcracker to allow her to get into the golden walnut.

Dirk stays in Meersburg for eight years after Nastaran’s death, helping with the business and with the boys. By then, Gerwig Pfeffer had remarried, and the boys were nearly grown. Dirk travels widely, returning to Germany 15 years after he left. He sets up a shop in Munich to sell his carved figurines, which parents take as toys. It soon proves to be a thriving business. It is here that his friend of long ago, Felix Stahlbaum, finds him. Felix now has a family.

Over time, it is Felix’s family that also becomes Dirk Drosselmeier’s family. He even joins them on a trip north to the Baltic Sea and the small island of Hiddensee. That becomes a summer home for the family. Felix’s wife was a von Koenig. On an errand for her, he discovers he was godfather for the Stahlbaum boys. After some years, it is the next generation of Stahlbaum children and their carved wooden toys that provide the background for the nutcracker story. It is, however, the original nutcracker.

“Hiddensee” offers some insight into the music of the 1800s as well as significant references to the fairytales of the era. It also provides a window into “how it might have been.” It should be noted that seeing “The Nutcracker” is not in the least helpful regarding this story. In addition, having read “Hiddensee” you may still wonder why it was named that. The book-club couldn’t find answers.

The full ballet “The Nutcracker” also is on YouTube. I need to give it, or myself, another chance.

Addendum: For some fun, try Jerry Seinfeld’s “Is This Anything?” on book or audio.

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