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Gregory Maguire of Wicked* fame returns for another jaunt into fable backstory with Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker. We follow Dirk, a sort of anti-hero main character, from his childhood with adopted parents in the mysterious Bavarian forest, through coming of age in a world he doesn’t quite understand or fit in, to finally, as an old man, introducing young Klara to the Nutcracker. Along the way he meets interesting characters, like a sweet minister who cares for him unselfishly and a woman transplanted to Germany from Persia who longs to return to her childhood—it is this longing, in fact, that attracts Dirk, who, from a brush with his own death as a child, seems bound to childhood and all of its mystery, fantasy, and magic.
Although the plot meanders slowly and at times inexplicably, Maguire immerses the reader in a rich world of textures and tastes and sounds, bringing to life the Germany that birthed the, at turns, light and dark folktales popularized by the Brothers Grimm (who, by the way, make an offstage cameo appearance in the book).
You’re going to need your dictionary for this one unless you use words like “homunculus” or “denticle” on a regular basis. The language and imagery are thick, sometimes requiring multiple passes before meaning makes itself clear, or at least clearer. The central mysteries and themes of the story are also left to be teased out rather than stated explicitly. For example, the mystical tree Dirk fells early in the story and the Pan-like gnome he unearths do…what? Something, for sure. At the end of the story, meaning was much like the key in the heart of the golden walnut Klara used to unlock the fantasy land of her dreams: you know it’s there, but hidden.
Like his earlier work, Maguire’s writing is gritty at times, sometimes even coarse. Dirk’s first sexual encounter is described in some detail, although not gratuitously, to underscore his innocence and difficulty transitioning to adulthood. His friendship with Felix, a young man of means connected to the Barony for whom Dirk spends a summer working, develops into something more that, while seeming to reflect certain realities of the time, was perhaps unnecessary; I walked away uncertain what it really added to the story.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, particularly reading it during the Christmas season, but caution potential readers against picking it up based solely on their love for The Nutcracker.
3 Stars (Liked It)
* Note: The Wicked play is only loosely based on the book.