It’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. Rather than not join in (November
has been is still very hectic for me), I picked a quick read – a newish translation by Anthea Bell from Pushkin Press of a German Children’s Classic, by an author whom I never read as a child. I had previously only associated Erich Kästner with Emil and the Detectives which, given that my brother read it, I thought it a ‘boy’s book’ – I know, I should have read it too. I hadn’t realised though that Kästner had also written the original novel that a classic children’s film was based on – two versions, both by Disney – the later being one of my daughter’s favourites; the film with Lindsay Lohan and Lindsay Lohan with (gorgeous) Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson … Got it yet? The earlier version from 1961 starred Hayley Mills. Yes, it’s …
The Parent Trap by Erich Kastner
Nine-year-old Luise Palfy from Vienna meets nine-year-old Lottie Körner from Munich at a summer camp for girls where they discover that they look exactly the same. Initial shock and anger dissipate into an armistice and then collusion…
Both girls have slipped into the bathroom and are standing in front of a big mirror. Lottie is enthusiastically setting to work on Luise’s ringlets with a brush and comb.
‘Ouch!’ cries Luise, and ‘Ow!’
‘Do for goodness’ sake keep still!’ says Lottie crossly, pretending to be a stern grown-up. ‘When your mummy’s braiding your hair you don’t screech like that!’
‘I don’t have any mummy,’ complains Luise. ‘That’s why – ouch! – that’s why I’m such a noisy child, my father says!’
‘Doesn’t he ever spank you, then?’ enquired Lottie with interest.
‘Not him! He loves me far too much!’
‘And anyway, his head’s full of other things.’
‘He only needs to have one hand free!’ They laugh.
Then Luise’s braids are plaited, and the children look eagerly in the mirror. Their faces are shining like Christmas trees. Two totally identical little girls look at the mirror! Two totally identical little girls look back out of the mirror!
‘We’re sisters!’ whispers Lottie, delighted.
Even if you didn’t know the story you can guess what will happen – the girls discover they really are twins, separated when their parents, having married young, split when the twins were still little. Both longing to re-find their other parent, they will swap places at the end of the camp, and start plotting to reunite their parents. It should have been simple, but becomes complicated by the fact that Ludwig has a girlfriend who has designs on marrying him.
The girls’ parents are quite accepting that their daughters have changed during the summer. Lottie seems worse at maths and cooking, but more fun to her mother; Luise takes the housekeeper/nanny in hand and impresses her father. Only the doctor’s dog isn’t fooled…
Kästner’s story is charming and paired together with the original illustrations by Walter Trier made for a diverting read. Told in the present tense there’s an innocence about the girls’ exploits, but told through the knowing eyes of the narrator. The later film in particular played up the comedy in the girls’ initial enmity. The original story gets that out of the way in the first short chapter. Kästner keeps it simple, leaving the meat of the book to the girls getting to know their parents – at first through each other’s tales, then living with the other parent, before finally seeing the parent they thought they knew through new eyes. The film too milks the plot to get rid of the girlfriend; in the book she doesn’t outstay her welcome, allowing true love to be re-found. A delightful tale.