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Literature / Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates

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Hans Brinker, also known as "Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates" and "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates" is an 1865 children's novel written by American author Mary Mapes Dodge.

Hans is a 15-year-old boy who, together with his younger sister Gretel, yearns to participate in a great ice-skating race on the canal. The main prize is a pair of silver skates. Unfortunately, they come from a very poor family with a father who is unable to work since a fall from a dike. The father has mental problems as a result and the children have to work to support the family. They skate all right, but on homemade wooden skates that stick after a few strokes. After Dr. Boekman is persuaded to examine their father, the doctor concludes that Father Brinker could be cured by a risky and expensive operation involving trephining. Despite saving money to buy himself some steel skates, Hans offers the doctor everything he has. This touches Dr. Boekman so much that he offers to provide the surgery for free, thus enabling Hans to buy good skates and participate in the race. The operation is a success and from now on, Dr. Boekman is a much kinder man who helps Hans into becoming a successful doctor.


There is a subplot that often gets forgotten in the retelling of the story. A group of Dutch boys - Peter van Holp, Carl Schummel, Lambert van Mounen, Ludwig van Holp, Jacob Poot and Ben Dobbs - go on a multi-day skating journey to several of Holland' more famous towns. Much of the subplot consists of long conversations between Lambert and Ben on the history of Holland and the places they journey through.

In the end, Gretel wins the Girls' Race. When Peter's skate strap breaks before the third heat of the Boys' Race, Hans gives Peter his own skate strap allowing Peter to win.

There are a lot of common misconceptions surrounding this novel:

  1. The best-known part is the scene where a boy plugs a dike with his finger and thus prevents a large flood from happening. This tale is actually only a Story Within a Story. Hans reads about it in class. It has nothing to do with Hans Brinker himself.
  2. Never in Dutch history has a small boy ever prevented a flood by sticking his finger inside a hole in a dike. Nor did Mary Mapes Dodge think it up. It already circulated a few years earlier and is clearly a legend.
  3. Neither story is part of Dutch folklore. In fact, the story is hardly known in the Netherlands itself. The only reason you can find statues of a boy plugging a dike in Madurodam, Harlingen and Spaarlingen is to please tourists.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Alpha Bitch: Katrinka. She's not bad as alpha bitches go and the narrator points out that she'd be a kinder person if her best friend was Hilda instead of Rychie.
  • Bad Santa: There's a chapter involving the northern European tradition of having a guy playing St. Nicholas come to the house and tell all the children their good and bad deeds in detail. Truth in Television, and some educators now discourage it as it can scare the crap out of younger children. note 
  • Beta Bitch: Rychie is the kind who is a Poisonous Friend to the Alpha Bitch Katrinka. Rychie can be nasty and even cruel; Katrinka is flighty and easily influenced.
  • The Big Race
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gretel and Peter win the skates, and almost everyone turns out fairly well. Except for poor Jacob, who dies.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: As revealed by the final chapter, Hans and Annie.
  • Children Are Innocent
  • Completely Different Title: The story is sometimes shortened to "Hans Brinker" or "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates", while the original title is actually "Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates".
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A poor brother and sister named Hans and Gretel? Hmm...
  • Evil Redhead: Local lout and ruffian Janzoon Kolp has scruffy red hair.
  • Flat Character: Lambert has precisely one characteristic - he speaks fluent English. This way, he can give Ben (and the reader) a lot of exposition and historical facts about Holland without having it colored by a personality.
  • The Great Flood
  • Have a Gay Old Time: A little boy sticking his finger inside a hole in a dike? To prevent a "flood"? Meaning the dyke is being fingered? Errrr...
  • Heel–Face Turn: Dr. Boekman, who was gruffy and sympathetic at first, but was so touched by Hans and Gretel's innocence and unselfishness that he changed his ways.
  • The Ingenue: Annie, an upper class girl Hans's age.
  • Jerkass: Almost everyone to the Brinkers. Carl and Rychie in particular are nasty towards anyone they consider below their social class. There's also Janzoon Kolp, who's essentially the town delinquent.
  • Kid Hero: The "Hero of Haarlem" and Hans himself as well, of course
  • Land of Tulips and Windmills: This novel is easily the Trope Codifier.
  • Lemony Narrator: Most of the book was written with standard narration. In a few places it lapsed into Lemony Narration, such as when the narrator pondered why Santa Claus didn't visit the destitute Brinker household on Christmas. Most jarring, however, is the ending, when the narrator declared that the reader didn't care whether Hans or Peter won the race.
  • MacGuffin: The skates
  • No Name Given: The dike-plugging boy is never named but is simply called "The Hero of Haarlem".
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The tale about the boy with his finger in the dike, which is only a small Story Within a Story, is actually more famous than Hans and his skates.
  • Story Within a Story: In a case of Popcultural Osmosis, the story about the dike-plugging boy is actually read to Hans Brinker in class.
  • That Didn't Happen: The finger-in-the-dike story wasn't an actual historical event, nor is it part of Dutch folklore.
  • Uncle Pennybags: Peter and Hilda respectively try to find ways to help Hans and Gretel earn money, since the Brinkers are too proud to beg or accept charity. They both got it from their families.

Alternative Title(s): Hans Brinker


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