At the same time that my wife Lea Booth picked up the copy of Nan which I reviewed earlier, I stumbled upon a copy of a book that had special memories for me. I first read Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates during the summer after my high school graduation. Though it had long sat on the bookshelf in my room, I’d ignored it throughout a childhood spent voraciously reading in favor of stuff like those those highly fictionalized hagiographic biographies such as Ben Franklin: Boy Printer by the prolific and long-lived Augusta Stevenson; series such as those featuring the Bobbsey Twins (about which I will write someday having experienced the books in their original versions rather than in some of Bobbs-Merrill’s later updated forms), the Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift, Jr.; and, of course, classics such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer; Treasure Island and Kidnapped; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even Fenimore Cooper was not beyond my ambition – prodded by a literary grandmother, I got through The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, and The Last of the Mohicans. Don’t ask me how. Youth is a powerful thing – and less judgmental about matters such as writing style.
So Hans Brinker languished until my 18th summer.
I remember picking up Hans Brinker a couple of times at around 11 or 12 but not being able to get started with it. The previously mentioned books, baseball, and most importantly, an obsession with playing the guitar and trying to become a Beatle had become too important to me.
The summer of my 18th year was a hot and miserable one for more than meteorological reasons. My graduation from high school was, because of my refusal to consider a delayed appointment to West Point my father had arranged through a politician friend (hello, 1970 and Vietnam on the news in my den every evening), and my father’s near apoplectic fury at me over that decision, a dreary prelude to forced enrollment at the local community college – a prospect I dreaded. A couple of lost summer jobs were punctuated by the worst blow of all – being booted from my band, the most popular band in my hometown. Goodbye Beatles, goodbye college of my choice, goodbye childhood. Hello adult world – you suck.
So I woke one morning in late July/early August with, as The Stones wailed from my stereo, “No Expectations.” I looked over at the book shelf and there sat that dusty copy of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. I picked it up and began to read.
I finished it in a day. I hadn’t read with that kind of voracious need to escape since junior high. Whatever Hans Brinker could teach I needed to learn, I guess.
And the book taught me lot. The frozen canals of Holland were a welcome respite from a sweltering North Carolina summer – and taught me about Holland’s weather. The long, digressive St. Nicholas holiday skating trip offered plenty of Dutch history and culture. The interlocking stories of Raff Brinker, Hans’s father, and Laurens Boekman, the son of the doctor who restores Raff to health – and who in turn helps Hans become a doctor himself is well plotted. And, like other youth literature of the period (such as the last book reviewed, Nan), Hans Brinker offers those valuable lessons in being “good”: one should trust one’s religious training, observe the social conventions, and strive to improve oneself – and good results will come.
For the disillusioned, alienated not quite 18 year-old I was, this slightly creaky kids book was a reminder that striving is as important as succeeding. It gave me hope. And, as in the conclusion of Hans Brinker, I can report that everything worked out happily.
Reading Hans Brinker again after more than 40 years (and with doctoral level training and long career experience in writing, reading and analyzing literature), it would be easy to castigate the author’s tendency to clumsily didactic set pieces – and her somewhat confusing introductions and dismissals of characters – and the tacked on feeling of the “what happened to the characters because they were good or bad” conclusion.
But those things don’t matter so much with Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. It’s a book about hope. About believing in hope and having hope. And about what a little hope can do for one’s life.
Any kid, at any age, can benefit from that.