January 26 – Happy Birthday, Mary Mapes Dodge

Posted on January 26, 2014

Just a few days ago I talked about the enthusiasm Dutch people have for skating and speed skating.  Today I want to talk about an author that first introduced me and other Americans to that enthusiasm. Mary Mapes Dodge wrote the book Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, and it became an instant best-seller, a prize winner, and a children's literature classic. It has been continuously in print ever since it was first published in 1865.

Hans Brinker was set in Holland (or the Netherlands). But Mary Mapes Dodge, who was born in New York City on this date in 1831, had never been to Holland when she wrote it. How did she manage to write such a successful book set in a place she'd never been?

For one thing, Dodge did a lot of research. She read large volumes about Dutch history and customs, and she talked a lot about life in Holland with her Dutch neighbors in the U.S.

For another thing, the book was instantly popular in America. And most Americans didn't know nearly as much about the Netherlands, even, as Dodge, so she could slip up here and there. And slip up she did! She botched a lot of the Dutch names and words she used in her novel. (If you're interested, check out this list of her mistakes.) 

And of course, Hans Brinker IS a novel. That means it's fiction. Dodge made up stuff, of course, just like any novel writer!

One part of Hans Brinker that is very familiar to many people is a story about a little Dutch boy holding back the sea and saving his country by putting his finger into a hole in a dike. Versions of this story were in print in English-language publications from 1850 to 1863. Dodge included a version in her book, a story written about an anonymous hero and read in a classroom in England. In her novel, one of Dodge's characters tells everyone that the story is true, and that all the children in Holland know the tale.

A statue in the Netherlands
of a Dutch boy who is an
American fiction and folk hero.
However, of course the tale is not true. More surprising to many is that the tale is not commonly known to the Dutch—certainly not back in the 1800s. It is the novel Hans Brinker that popularized the story of the boy and the dike; since then others have written poems, stories, and even full-fledged children's books about the heroic boy. Many people remember incorrectly that it was Hans Brinker who was supposed to have saved his country by sticking his finger in a dike. Tourists in the Netherlands have asked so often to see the dike where this event happened (even though it never happened), that now there are at least three statues of the boy and the dike!

So, thanks to Dodge, a bit of American folklore is now acknowledged in the Netherlands as if it were Dutch, and many people seem to think that a fictional event (supposedly done by a nameless hero) really happened, and that it was done by a completely-separate-but-also-fictional character!

(If you are interested in actual Dutch folklore, check out this English-language website.) 


By the way...

Did you know that a Google image search of “Hans Brinker” will come up with a LOT of very strange-but-funny ads for the Hans Brinker Budget Hostel in Amsterdam? It's supposed to be a world's worst hotel, with filthy rooms and a broken elevator. And...it's all too true. Yet the sarcastic advertisements have worked – people from all over the world hasten to rent out the rooms!

A lot of the ads read,
"It can't get any worse.
But we'll do our best."


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