Hiddensee by Gregory Macguire (Historical Fantasy Novel, 2017).
Best-selling author of many retellings/reimaginings of classic fairy tales (the Wicked Trilogy and the hot play based on it being just a few examples), Gregory Macguire here enters Brother Grimm/Tchaikovsky turf with the lifestory of the fictional character who supposedly created the magical title figure in The Nutcracker Suite. One of the Grimm boys even makes an (uncredited but obvious) cameo appearance in the book’s early stages!
The tale starts with Dirk Drosselmeier, a fondling with no idea of his heritage, living in the Black Forest with a grumpy woodcutter and the woodcutter’s sister. They’re next to hermits and keep young Dirk isolated and ignorant of the wider world. In a typical Grimm motif, the two apparently decide they can no longer feed or keep him and the woodcutter takes him into the woods with murder on his mind. A twist of fate (and some mysterious and magical figures who pop up) save Dirk and he escapes.
He wanders into a village, where the local minister befriends him. After several years, Dirk is sent on a mission, carrying a letter from the minister to a distant city, where he gets sidetracked and involved with a rich family, their friends and servants. Dirk grows up, experiencing much of what 19th century Germany has to offer, while developing a skill for woodcarving and learning bits and pieces about mythic figures from the Greek tradition (who may be the odd characters he encountered when a child in the deep woods). He also encounters Dr. Mesmer (the real life proponent of hypnotic ‘Mesmerism’ who attempts to help him make sense of his bizarre visions). He falls in love with the troubled, Persian-born wife of his wealthy employer–though he makes no effort to do anything inappropriate. Instead he dedicates himself to helping raise her children.
The tragic death of the lady and the growth to adulthood of her sons frees him to travel the world for some years. Finally returning to Germany, he reconnects with one of the grown sons, opens a toy shop selling the handcrafted wooden figures (including a certain nutcracker which has a special place in his heart) and becomes the godfather to the grown son’s young kids.
A particular favorite is the sickly daughter, Klara–a girl whose imagination (or sensitivity?) allows her to see many strange things that others don’t. She has serious heart trouble and has a fear of the Mouse King who she says plots against her. All his adult life, the now-aged Dirk has carried the nutcracker with him, searching for the proper person to receive it. Klara is of course the one who has need of it and receives it for Christmas–just in time for the health crisis (and possibly magical confrontation of protective toys and nasty rodents detailed in the famous ballet).
Klara survives, becomes an author of children’s fables herself and lives her life, grows old and finally dies even as Germany lurches into the multiple strains, stresses and toward ultimate disaster, courtesy the rise of the Nazis.
At once magical, discerning, humane, entrancing, convincing, wistful and quietly, lovingly dramatic, this is another fine piece of legend-recounting with a startlingly realistic feel. Macguire at his best, indeed.