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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 Meneer 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's 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 Toxic Friend Influence to the Alpha Bitch Katrinka. Rychie can be nasty and even cruel; Katrinka is flighty and easily influenced.
  • Big Fun: Jacob Poot is an understated example; overweight but extremely good natured and quick to laugh.
  • The Big Race: There is a big event with one race for the boys and one for the girls scheduled by the community, with a pair of fine silver skates as the prize for the winner. Most of the book builds up towards 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.
  • 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.
  • Fat and Skinny: Jacob Poot, described by the narration as 'portly', and his very skinny English cousin Ben Dobbs. Someone compares the pair of them to a good slice of bacon - part lean part fat.
  • 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.
  • 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. The epilogue implies that Rychie of all people might have been the narrator.
  • MacGuffin: The skates.
  • Muscles Are Meaningful: During the big race, Hans realizes that he isn't fit to win the race because he wasn't able to go on the skating tour of Holland with the other boys and is out of shape compared to them. So when Peter's skate string snaps, Hans, realizing he isn't going to win anyway and preferring that Peter win instead of Carl, drops out of the race and gives Peter his skate string.
  • No Name Given: The dike-plugging boy is never named but is simply called "The Hero of Haarlem".
  • Overly Long Name: A 9 year old boy named Voostenwalbert Schimmelpenninck. He gets called 'a monkey with a long name for a tail.'
  • Spoiled Sweet: Hilda Van Gleck, unlike Rychie and Katrinka, thinks it's wrong to mistreat the Brinker family because of their misfortune. When Greta is too proud to accept charity, Hilda finds her a job. She's also willing to tell off Rychie for being nasty.
  • Stepford Smiler: Katrinka grows up to be one of these - the narration often compares her to tinkling bells, and the epilogue says that some of the bells have grown out of tune.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Urban Legend: The story of the boy who stuck his finger in the hole in the dike is Based on a Great Big Lie, with no basis in history or fact, nor is it even part of Dutch folklore - for a good reason: Dutch dikes don't spring finger-sized leaks, they crumble in large sections. Interestingly, in 1953 there was an instance of a man whose quick thinking blocked a hole in a dike— using an entire cargo ship!

Alternative Title(s): Hans Brinker