The Legend of The Boy and the Dike
Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates 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 19th-century Dutch life, as well as a tale of youthful honor.
The book’s title refers to the beautiful silver skates to be awarded to the 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.
The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland’.
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.
Popular culture: the legend of the boy and the dike
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.
(Spaarndam, Madurodam and) Harlingen