If you asked an average American what do they know about the Netherlands or Holland, I would imagine it would be: wooden shoes, tulips, windmills, smoking pot in Amsterdam and Hans Brinker. Who is Hans Brinker? Why, he is the boy who kept his finger in the dike to save the town from flooding. Everyone knows the story of this heroic boy who saved his town, right? Hans was on his way to school and saw a hole in the dike and he put his finger in the dike to stop the water and he stayed that way all night, until help arrived. What a dramatic story, but it was only fiction, and it was not Hans Brinker.

American Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905) wrote HANS BRINKER OR THE SILVER SKATES and it was published in 1865. It was the story of Hans and his sister Gretel who wanted to win silver skates in a skating race so that they can use the money to help their father. Within this novel, there was a story about a boy who stopped a town from flooding by putting his finger in a dike. But that boy was not Hans and had nothing to do with Hans, and in fact, the boy in the story is never named.

Dodge had not been to the Netherlands before writing the book. But her book introduced many readers to this country and Hans Brinker became a very famous fictional hero. Americans have loved this book for years and it is still in print. In fact, most Dutch people are not familiar with this book or the legend of the boy. The only reason they may have heard about this heroic act was because American tourists kept coming here and asking if they could go to the home town of Hans Brinker.  They also wanted to see the monument or statue in honor of this boy. Tourists were shocked to find that there was nothing to celebrate Hans Brinker. I imagine many Dutch people said “who is Hans Brinker?”

But there are now two towns who have statues in honor of Hans or the boy at the dike. Due to the increased requests from tourists, three towns have acknowledged the fame of this book. The towns are: Spaarndam and Harlingen.

By the way, I would have not known this fact unless I had lived here, but the idea of a boy sticking his finger in a dike and stopping a flood is just a physical impossibility. Dikes are not made of stone, it was not like a brick or stone popped out of the wall and the leak just happened. Dikes are made of sand and clay and a finger or hand is never going to stop the water.

As for the other Dutch stereotypes, there are 1500 windmills in the Netherlands and most of them are still working. There are thousands of wooden shoes in gift shops, and there are actually some on the feet of farmers. They are great for working in the mud. Tulips grow in abundance here and to see them at a tulip farm will take your breath away. And the issue of legal pot smoking is currently being debated with politicians, and I will write about it later on. It is a complicated story. But I can tell you that on my third day here, I stood at a street corner a little too long, and I got high as a kite…and all I was doing was looking at the boats on the water. I swear that the boats were moving like a slow motion film and everyone was wearing wooden shoes and throwing tulips at my feet. And then this blonde little Dutch boy went up to a wall, stuck out his finger and pretended to save us from the ocean which is 30 miles away. All I wanted to do was go home and make some brownies.

Recommended reading: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

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  • AstridQK  On November 14, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    LOL, how funny is it that the story of Hansje Brinker is only ‘world famous’ in America?

    We know a story with the same names Hans and Gretel/Grietje, but it is with a witch and a candyhouse 🙂

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