Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker – Gregory Maguire
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Gregory Maguire has become a fairly household name for his reworking of the Wizard of Oz in his own creation, Wicked, which in turn spawned an awe-worthy broadway musical featuring Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth and yadda yadda yadda… The rest is history.
His revisionist style has been put to work yet again in Hiddensee, this time framing a prequel to the beloved story of The Nutcracker. The tale is a Christmastime staple, and Tchaikovsky’s accompanying score is well-known from the ballet performance and Fantasia video alike. Maguire’s story takes us into the life of Drosselmeier, the toy-making godfather, and the events of his life leading up to the magical events in The Nutcracker. Drosselmeier’s story begins as an abandoned child living with two strange, elderly caretakers in a remote forest. After a mysterious event in the woods triggers his near-death experience, he leaves his home and finds work as he wanders nomadically around Europe. We witness him ponder huge life questions as he grows up, fascinated with the mysticism of his youthful experience. He befriends many households and gathers himself a family, though he has no children or wife of his own, and in his old age, he grows close to his ill goddaughter, Klara, trying to instill her with all the magic he can before their time together runs out.
In order to enjoy a Gregory Maguire novel, I believe you have to firmly enjoy his writing style. He is overly-adorned, writing with extravagant words and dripping with baroque prose. His words are sophisticated, but extra; elegant, but glitzy. He expels a sort of literary kitsch, and in order to enjoy the content, you have to be okay with this delivery.
As he did in his previous novels, he positions his fairy tale against a context of societal, political, and realistic settings.
Maguire uses this novel to not only retell a fairy tale, but to ask huge questions of the universe. He examines death and the afterward of dying; he ponders over the links between Greek mythology and German storytelling; he discusses the magic of youth, and the nature of growing old.
His questions are a lot to digest in just 283 pages of the mass hardcover edition. In hindsight I would’ve liked to hear more about Drosselmeier’s mysterious and magical experiences in the Lost Forest with his gods of Pan and Pythia, who are oft mentioned but never really dealt with. However, he weaves the magic of the fairy tale into his realism quite effortlessly, and while I miss the magic, I can appreciate the stern direction Maguire usually takes.
Ultimately, you can never fault Maguire for lack of originality. It takes quite a skill of imagination to take an existing piece of work and twist it so entirely far into what Hiddensee is. At its core, the book is based on Drosselmeier’s loves, losses, growth, and beliefs. He is a lively, distinct, and interesting character, and the people he meets along the way are, too. The characters and their development are the foundation of the novel, more so than any fairy tale.
Hiddensee is not The Nutcracker. It is a prequel to the beloved story we all know and love, but even at that, it is entirely its own story with a fiercely independent purpose. Maguire’s elaborate words lay industrial amounts of glitter over a serious imagining of a magical plot. If you want to enjoy this book, know what you are getting yourself into. It is not a fairy tale, it is barely magical, and it doesn’t ring out with holiday cheer. However, it does ask resonance questions about complex concepts. Where does the passion of youth go as we grow old? Are nostalgias and memories more painful than letting go? What are loneliness, and magic, and death, and mysticism? Like I said: Maguire is asking the big questions here, and he may not give us all the answers here, but he’s sure made me think.