Hans Brinker is not Dutch. We were informed of this by our Dutch guide shortly after arriving in the Netherlands. Huh? “Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates” has been celebrated literature since the mid-1800’s in American schools—most famously as propagator of the story of the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a dike to save his country. This little story-within-a-story, called “The Hero of Haarlem”, is told in the book as part of the larger Hans Brinker narrative, although the hero, unnamed, is NOT Hans Brinker.
Can this have never happened???
It turns out that “Hans Brinker” was written by an American, Mary Mapes Dodge, who had never visited the Netherlands. She leaned on book research and Dutch neighbors to fill in authentic details about Dutch life and history. In the end, she produced an inspiring tale about an honorable lad who does the right thing despite difficult family circumstances. It is also, intrinsically, an American fable.
Russell Shorto, American author of the excellent book “Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City” explains in a discussion of Dutch character. The story of the boy and the dike perplexes the Dutch because, first, a small hole in a dike through which water pours is an impossibility, and, second, the Dutch would never bring up a child to think he/she should stop this crisis on his/her own. In a Dutch version, the child would run to the local Water Board, which would pull out an emergency plan and marshall local citizens to fix the dike. The history of the Dutch struggle against the sea is all about group effort.
“Hans Brinker”, then, illustrates the difference between American individualism and Dutch collectivism. This, of course, has not kept a few Dutch towns from trying to capitalize on tourism by erecting a statue to the hero of the story or an Amsterdam hostel from naming itself “Hans Brinker Budget Hotel”. But according to Wikipedia’s entry on the subject, seconded by our guide, Joppe, “The story of the dike-plugging boy is….not widely known in the Netherlands — it is a piece of American, rather than Dutch, folklore.”