THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL is a holocaust book. It is also a retelling of the classic German fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. TTSoHaG is not the first book to do this: Jane Yolen also wrote a fairytale retelling about the holocaust called BRIAR ROSE.
TTSoHaG takes place in Poland. Why Poland? Because, according to the author, it was "the Devil's anvil" of WWII -- I guess the Nazis went there a lot to get stuff done. As far as atmospheres go, Murphy has woven a pretty fearsome one. SS soldiers are everywhere, and so are their spies. Some are living in a haze of war-fueled moral ambiguity. Others wallow in their depravity (like a certain Oberfuhrer who gets sexual gratification from blood transfusions from Aryan women because he believes it gives him power). The Russians are coming, and pushing back the Germans, but they maybe aren't so great, either.
Hansel and Gretel are on the run with their father and stepmother. They are on a motorcycle, and the stepmother points out that they will be faster without the deadweight of the children. So they abandon the children in the woods. The children leave a trail of breadcrumbs (ha) behind them as they push further into the Polish wilds, and end up in a small village, where they get taken in by a Rom woman named Magda, who has been (unfairly) branded as a witch because of her Gypsy ancestry.
Hansel and Gretel were given new German names by their father to help them hide better, and Magda takes it a step further by completely consuming their identities (ha). She gives them a new backstory, saying that they were put into a Karaite camp by their crazy mother, who imposed a circumcision on the boy. She dyes Hansel's hair blonde with peroxide. She tells them to avoid notice. Because the SS are abducting children -- perfect, blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan children. And Gretel fits the bill.
So does Magda's niece, Nelka, and her baby.
The fairytale references were pretty clever. At one point, Gretel goes into a cage because she keeps lashing out while she's in a fever. Magda moves the cage near the fire to keep her warm. When the Nazis come, Magda hides the two children in the oven.
One thing that really bothered me was that there was a lot of cruelty to children in this book. It's a holocaust book, so I wasn't expecting a happy ending, but I was surprised by how dark and terrible the content was. Gretel gets raped...while she's still a child. Nelka's lover, Telek, decides that the children of the village need to be horribly mutilated so the Nazis won't want to take them away, so there's a lovely description of that going on for about a chapter. Gretel gets molested by the crazy, creepy, blood-transfusion-loving Oberfuhrer.
I liked TTSoHaG, but it started to bog down towards the end. It was just misery heaped upon misery, and it didn't look like it was going anywhere for a bit. Also, Nelka and Telek's plot arc halted pretty quickly, which was a bit surprising considering the big role they played in the story. So one chapter they're there, and then that's the end of it? Okay, then.
The Polish setting was novel, and I liked the backdrop of TTSoHaG, but it was nothing special. The author said she did a lot of research about Poland and the Bialowieza forest for her story, and it really shows and adds a lot of atmosphere to the book. But I also feel like the characters became a bit nebulous at times, because there was less importance placed upon them, especially the children. When the two of them were walking alone in the forest, on the run, it dragged on and on, and I got flashbacks to RPG games where you're stuck in a desert, or a forest, looking for the magic switch that will get you the hell out of there. Meanwhile, enemies keep coming. That was this book.
3 out of 5 stars.