The history behind “In the Gingerbread House”

Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909

A young girl visits the backstage of an opera and is given a jewel that tells her the future.

When I was very small — about the age of Isabeau in this story — I fell in love with a film based on Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, made with stop-motion animation. It would play on television, usually around the winter holidays, and I adored the music and the puppets. Compared to today’s animation, it’s incredibly crude (even compared to some of its more carefully animated predecessors), but I would watch it every chance I got.

I also wanted very badly to experience magic. When I got just a little older, and became a dedicated reader, one of my favorite types of books were those where ordinary children would come across a magical amulet, or being, and would have adventures. I thought that, if I believed hard enough, some day that magic would happen to me.

My childhood belief in the possibility of magic, even in Brooklyn, and my memories of the opera, were the seeds from which “In the Gingerbread House” grew.

It was published in The Electric Velocipede, a marvelous independent press publication, in 2009.

“Willy,” Isabeau whispers. “The magic jewel is telling me stories. What’s a stroke?”

In the Gingerbread House

Isabeau is a completely fictional character, although like my partner Jim’s mother, she was smuggled out of Europe as a teenager by an underground movement. If you check her family tree, you’ll see that she’s the daughter of Sophia (whom we meet in the opening story).

Isabeau’s brother Wilhelm (later William) is, at this point in his life, completely fictional. When he grows up, he will become the William who marries Gretl (from “Waiting for Jakie”); some of the adult William’s history resembles that of my partner Jim’s father. William is the father of Ben (whom we meet in “Hearts and Minds” and “An Awfully Big Adventure”).

Isabeau’s father is a completely fictional character, as is everyone they meet backstage.

Traditionally, in Humperdinck’s opera, the roles of Hansel and Gretel are played by women, while the witch is played by a man.

Early in the campaign to exterminate “inferior” people, the Nazis would march populations to huge ditches, have them disrobe, and shoot them so the bodies would fall into the ditch. It was later decided this was inefficient, and other methods were employed.

In case you’re curious, here is the 1954 stop-motion version of Hansel and Gretel that I saw as a child. One thing I was delighted to discover, as I searched for this, was that the marvelous Anna Russell, whose satirical versions of The Ring Cycle and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are classics, voiced the Witch.

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