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Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates (full title: Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland) is a novel by American author Mary Mapes Dodge, first published in 1865. The novel takes place in the Netherlands, and is a colorful fictional portrait of early nineteenth-century Dutch life, as well as a tale of youthful honor.
The title of the book refers to the beautiful silver skates to be awarded to winner of the ice-skating race Hans Brinker hopes to enter. The novel introduced the sport of Dutch speed skating to Americans, and in U.S. media Hans Brinker is still considered the prototypical speed skater.
The book is also notable for popularizing the story of the little Dutch boy who plugs a dike with his finger.
Dodge, who never visited the Netherlands until after the novel was published, wrote the novel at age 34. She was inspired by her reading of John L. Motley's lengthy, multi-volume history works: The Rise of the Dutch Republic, and The History of the United Netherlands. Dodge subsequently did further bibliographical research into the country. She also received much firsthand information about Dutch life from her immigrant Dutch neighbors, the Scharffs, and Dodge noted in her preface to the 1875 edition of the book that the story of Hans Brinker's father was "founded strictly upon fact".
Full of Dutch cultural and historical information, the book became an instant bestseller, outselling all other books in its first year of publication except Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. The novel has since been continuously in print, most often in multiple editions and formats, and remains a children's classic.
In Holland, poor but industrious and honorable 15-year-old Hans Brinker and his younger sister Gretel, yearn to participate in December's great ice skating race on the canal. They have little chance of doing well on their handmade wooden skates, but the prospect of the race and the prize of the silver skates excites them and fires their dreams.
Hans' father, Raff Brinker, is sick and amnesiac, with violent episodes, because of a head injury caused by a fall from a dike, and he cannot work. Mrs. Brinker, Hans, and Gretel must all work to support the family and are looked down upon in the community because of their low income and poor status. Hans has a chance meeting with the famous surgeon Dr. Boekman and begs him to treat their father, but the doctor is expensive and gruff in nature following the loss of his wife and disappearance of his son. Eventually, Dr. Boekman is persuaded to examine the Brinkers' father. He diagnoses pressure on the brain, which can be cured by a risky and expensive operation involving trephining.
Hans offers his own money, saved in the hope of buying steel skates, to the doctor to pay for his father's operation. Touched by this gesture, Dr. Boekman provides the surgery for free, and Hans is able to buy good skates for both himself and Gretel to skate in the race. Gretel wins the girls' race, but Hans lets a friend — who needs it more — win the precious prize, the Silver Skates, in the boys' race.
Mr. Brinker's operation is successful, and he is restored to health and memory. Dr. Boekman is also changed, losing his gruff ways, thanks in part to being able to be reunited with his lost son through the unlikely aid of Mr. Brinker. The Brinkers' fortunes are changed further by the almost miraculous recovery of Mr. Brinker's savings, thought lost or stolen ten years ago.
The Brinker parents live a long and happy life. Dr. Boekman helps Hans go to medical school, and Hans becomes a successful doctor. Gretel also grows up to enjoy a happy adult life.
Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates has been adapted into several films and plays, all of which center around the dramatic ice-skating competition as the climax of the story, in keeping with the book. The film adaptations include:
A small fictional story within the novel has become well known in its own right in American popular culture. The story, read aloud in a schoolroom in England, is about a Dutch boy who saves his country by putting his finger in a leaking dike. The boy stays there all night, in spite of the cold, until the adults of the village find him and make the necessary repairs.
In the book, the boy and the story are called simply "The Hero of Haarlem". Although the hero of the dike-plugging tale remains nameless in the book, Hans Brinker's name has sometimes erroneously been associated with the character.
This small tale within Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates has generated numerous versions and adaptations in American media. Poet Phoebe Cary — at whose New York City literary gatherings Dodge was a regular guest — wrote a lengthy poem about it called "The Leak in the Dike", published posthumously in 1873, which has been widely anthologized in books of poetry for schoolchildren. Cary also gave the boy a name: Peter.
The tale has also inspired full-fledged children's books of its own, which include:
For tourism purposes, statues of the fictional dike-plugging boy have been erected in Dutch locations such as Spaarndam, Madurodam and Harlingen. The statues are sometimes mistakenly titled "Hans Brinker"; others are known as "Peter of Haarlem". The story of the dike-plugging boy is, however, not widely known in the Netherlands — it is a piece of American, rather than Dutch, folklore.
Versions of the story prior to Hans Brinker appear in several English-language publications from 1850 onward, including the following British and American publications:
In the United Kingdom:
In the U.S.:
The actual authorship and genesis of the story of the boy and the dike is currently unknown, but it is possibly from a hypothetical but unidentified story by French author Eugenie Foa (1796–1852), appearing as an alleged English translation, "The Little Dykeman", in Merry's magazine in 1868.
In sum, although Dodge was not the originator of the story of the boy and the dike, the immense popularity of her novel Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates made the story very widely known. The story within a story of the nameless little boy's heroism also parallels and emphasizes Hans Brinker's own heroism in the novel.