Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates


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Year Published

Book Review

This historical novel by Mary Mapes Dodge is published by Aladdin Paperback, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division, and is written for kids ages 8 to 12. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Plot Summary

Hans Brinker, age 15, and his sister, Gretel, age 12, live in Holland in the mid-1800s. Ten years before this tale unfolds, their father, Raff, suffered an injury that left him senseless and incapacitated. The children and their mother have lived in poverty ever since. They know Raff buried a large sum of money prior to his fall, but he’s unable to tell them where it’s hidden. Raff also left a fine watch with Dame Brinker just before his accident, making her promise to keep it safe. She knows nothing of its mysterious origins and has often considered selling it to feed the family.

Hollanders get around in the winter by skating on the frozen canals. Hans and Gretel can’t afford real skates, so they strap blocks of wood to their feet. Though many wealthier children look down on the Brinkers, a few, including Hilda van Gleck, Peter van Holp and Annie Bouman, show great kindness and generosity. Hilda and Peter buy Hans’ homemade necklaces so he and Gretel can afford real skates without feeling they’ve taken charity. These children provide other necessities for the Brinkers as well.

The children of the city are overcome with excitement when they learn of an upcoming skating contest. The fastest girl and the fastest boy will each win a pair of silver skates.

As Hans goes to town to purchase his skates, he spies the renowned surgeon Dr. Boekman on the street. Hans offers his skate money to the man, if the doctor will examine Raff. Touched by Hans’ story, the doctor refuses the money and promises to come see Raff when he returns from a trip.

Shortly thereafter, Raff’s health deteriorates. Hans and Peter go in search of the doctor, but without success. When Dr. Boekman finally returns, he performs a risky surgery to relieve pressure on Raff’s brain. Raff experiences healing that is miraculous. Though his memory is foggy, he is essentially the same person he was before his accident. He helps the family find the lost money, and the Brinkers are finally able to support themselves in a reasonable manner.

Raff also begins to remember the story behind the watch he’d left with Dame Brinker. It was given to him by a man named Thomas Higgs who was fleeing the country. Thomas believed he’d inadvertently poisoned someone. He asked Raff to contact his father and give him the watch. Thomas told Raff to have his father contact him if it was ever safe for him to return to Holland. On one of Dr. Boekman’s visits, the Brinkers discover Thomas Higgs is the doctor’s son. Dr. Boekman explains that he had prevented the poisoned man’s death, so Thomas was not in any legal trouble. He’s thrilled to learn his son may still be alive, and Hans promises to help the doctor find Thomas. Through another coincidence, they trace Thomas to England. He returns home immediately.

Hans and Gretel, along with all of the children of the town, join the race for the silver skates. Gretel wins in the girls’ category. Hans is one of the finalists in the boys’ category. When Peter’s skate strap breaks right before the final run, Hans graciously gives his strap to his friend. Peter wins the race.

Dr. Boekman later returns to the Brinkers’ house to introduce his son. Thomas will be starting a business in town and offers Raff a job as his right-hand man. When Dr. Boekman learns of Hans’ interest in surgery, he invites the boy to become his apprentice.

In a sub-plot, Peter leads a group of boys on a multi-day skating adventure to various Holland cities. The boys (including an English boy named Ben) see numerous historical sites and share stories about famous Dutchmen over the years. The narrator uses this trip to show readers a detailed geography and history of Holland. One legend made famous by this novel is the tale of the Dutch boy who sticks his finger in a dike to save his town from flooding. Peter and the boys say this tale represents the spirit of Holland. Any leak, be it in government, public safety or honor, is quickly filled by a million fingers. The boys lose their money, sail on an ice boat and catch a thief before visiting Peter’s sister’s mansion and returning home for the big race.

Christian Beliefs

The narrator praises Holland for her religious freedom and makes several mentions of historical Dutch people praying during their struggles. Dame Brinker defends herself to Hans, saying she’s a true Protestant, after she admits to praying to St. Nicholas. Dame Brinker prays for her children and husband, and Gretel prays for her father. The narrator and the Brinkers sometimes mention God and His will. The Brinkers sometimes exclaim, “God is good!” They own a large old Bible that was a wedding gift from extended family in Germany. The doctor and the Brinkers bow to pray when they see Father has been healed. Hans learns that, while surgery is an ugly business, it awakens a reverence for God’s work.

In the legend about the boy who stuck his finger in the dike, the boy prays to God about what to do. He receives holy resolution in the decision that he must stay with his finger in the dike until morning.

The boys who take a skating trip are deeply moved by the sites, services and music in several cathedrals they visit. One boy feels that church bells are like a common language spoken by people of every nation, no matter what differences and sects divide them. An English boy, Ben feels offended in a church where men wear hats during the service. He tries to remind himself that this is a cultural difference, but in his heart, he feels the Hollanders’ behavior is sinful. When some of the boys belittle the man who tried to rob them, Peter reminds them that this man is their brother. He hopes God will allow the law and its punishment to cure the man rather than crush him.

Other Belief Systems

Gretel believes a stork nesting on the Brinkers’ roof will bring them luck. The tulip industry became almost a form of gambling at one point, causing some Hollanders great economic hardship. The narrator says Gretel clings to her mother with a love that is almost idolatry.

Authority Roles

Dame Brinker is a kindhearted woman. For 10 years she struggles to provide for her family because her husband is mentally absent. Many townspeople see Dr. Boekman, the most renowned surgeon in Holland, as mean-spirited. He is actually sympathetic to the Brinkers, charging them nothing for his services. He also becomes much more visibly pleasant once he is reunited with his son. He teaches Hans to be a surgeon, also at no charge.

After suffering from an accident-induced mental illness for 10 years, Raff Brinker emerges as the pleasant and proud father and husband he was before his accident.

Profanity & Violence

Dame Brinker tells the children a story of a landlord who kills three young men, cuts up their bodies and throws them in a tub of brine. He intends to sell them as pickled pork. St. Nicholas appears to the repentant landlord and then causes the bodies of the young men to regenerate themselves.

Sexual Content

Family members kiss one another on happy occasions or when saying goodbye.

Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • What did you learn about Holland from this story?
  • What is the significance of the legend of the boy who stuck his finger in the dike?
  • How does it represent the spirit of Holland, according to the boys on the skating trip?

  • How does the kindness of young people like Peter, Annie and Hilda make a difference in the Brinkers’ lives?

  • Think of someone from school who may be in need of help or friendship.
  • How can you come alongside that person?

  • Which characters have a strong faith in God?

  • How do they show it?
  • How does their godly behavior encourage or influence others?

  • What does it mean to be industrious?

  • How do the Brinkers display this quality, especially while Raff Brinker is incapacitated?

Additional Comments

Alcohol: The narrator sympathizes with Hollanders, who have to drink beer or wine when clean water is scarce. Even young Hollanders drink wine at times, and wine is often given to those who are ailing.

Smoking: Most Dutchmen smoke pipes.

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