In 2014, a new novel about Hans Brinker was published. When I saw it in a book store, I was surprised. Hans Brinker? Of course I know the story, but I wasn’t aware of the fact that it’s still a popular tale. “It seems a day like any other, when little Hans sets off to visit his grandfather,” is the first line of the story. “The sun is shining, and happily he starts to walk along the dyke. But then Hans hears the sound of trickling water, and he sees something that would terrify any Dutch child…”
Hans Brinker, the “boy who saved his country from a flood by putting his finger in the dyke”. I always thought it was an over exaggeration. A fairy tale, told from generation to generation. “The symbol of the ongoing battle against the water is colourfully revived in this book, and still has a lesson to teach us: by taking action at the right time, even the smallest child can become a big hero!” I love fairy tales, but the story of Hans Brinker is a realistic tale with one curious element: the finger in the dyke.
Mary Mapes Dodge, an American author, first published the novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates in 1865. The story of the book takes place in the Netherlands and pictures early nineteenth century Dutch life. The title of the novel refers to Hans’ speed skating ambitions; he wants to win beautiful silver skates by participating in an ice skating race.
But besides the fact that the novel introduced Americans to the Dutch sport of speed skating, it has also emphasized that other story: a little Dutch boy who plugs a dyke with his finger.
One of the remarkable facts behind the book is that Mary Mapes Dodge had never visited the Netherlands before the book was published. She had only read novels about the country and received information about Holland from her immigrant Dutch neighbours. She did state in the preface of the 1875 edition of the book that the story about Hans Brinkers’ father was “founded strictly upon fact”. The book became a bestseller, because it was so full of information about the Dutch culture and history. As of today, it is still a children’s classic.
The story goes as follows: Hans Brinker (15) and his younger sister Gretel want to participate in a great skating race on the canal. Their father, Raff Brinker, can’t work because he fell from a dyke and hurt his head. That’s why the whole family has to work hard. They are not popular in their community, because they are so poor. When he has the opportunity to ask a doctor for help, the doctor wants to operate his father for free.
Hans did offer him all his money, but the doctor let him participate in the race instead. Gretel wins the girls’ race, but Hans is so kind to let a friend win the boys’ race. In the end, the Brinker family is happy again; they have found their long lost savings and father has completely recovered. Hans even becomes a successful doctor. The story has been adapted into films and plays over the years, which all include the skating story.
However, the legend of the boy and the dyke remains the most interesting part of the story. In Holland, most of us have heard of the tale, but we talk about it with great scepticism. In America, on the other hand, the story is well known in American popular culture. Hans is called “the hero of Haarlem”. Haarlem is a city in the west of the Netherlands, not far from Amsterdam.
The story turned into more books as well, because in 1974 the novel The Hole in the Dyke by Norma Green was published and in 1987, Lenny Hort wrote the story The Boy Who Held Back the Sea. There are also several statues of Hans Brinker with his finger in a dyke in the Netherlands. In Spaarndam, Madurodam and Harlingen, to be exact. In a poem by Phoebe Cary, the boy’s name has changed from Hans to Peter.
There are sources in which the story of the boy with the finger in the dyke is being mentioned before it was actually mentioned in Mary Mapes Dodge’s book. Mostly he is called “The Little Hero of Haarlem” or “The Boy at the Dyke” in the USA and “The Little Dutch Hero” in the UK. The oldest story about the little boy can be found here.
To be honest, foreigners are more interested in the story of Hans Brinker than the Dutch. We don’t really consider it to be part of Dutch folklore, because the story about the Brinker family has been written by an American writer and no one knows who came up with the story. In Holland, people know that one can’t prevent a flood by putting a finger in the dyke. When the water comes, the dyke will completely cave in and one finger won’t help at all.
Despite all this, I must admit that the story of Hans Brinker is fun to read to children and that in recent books, one can find beautiful drawings of the tale. When you read it as a fairy tale, it is a nice little story.
This article was written for CultNoise and published on 16.02.2015.