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Dear Mili (1988)

Written by Wilhelm Grimm

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

On September 28, 1983, the front page story of the New York Times was the discovery of a new tale by Wilhelm Grimm.

Wilhelm was born in Germany in 1796. He was only 9 years old when he and his brother Jacob began collecting folktales, and was 16 when their first collection was published. Over the next few years, they published many hundreds of found and collected stories.

While they were enjoying their success, the story goes that in 1816 – when Wilhelm would have been 20 – he wrote a letter to a young girl named Mili. Strangely, I couldn’t find anything about who this Mili was. Was her identity intentionally kept private, or is it truly an unknown? Regardless, within the letter was a story he had written. It was not, so far as I can tell, a retelling of a folktale which he had collected, but an original piece from his own imagination.

The letter remained in the girl’s possession for her entire life and was passed down through the family for more than a century and a half. In 1983, then, the letter was made public. Once translated and rights were settled, the great publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was set to publish the letter in book form, and succeeded in securing Maurice Sendak as the illustrator.

It begins thus:

Dear Mili;
I’m sure you have gone walking in the woods or in the green meadows, and passed a clear, flowing brook. And you’ve tossed a flower in the brook, a red one, a blue one, or a snow-white one. It drifted away, and you followed it with your eyes as far as you could. And it went quietly away with the little waves, farther and farther, all day long and all night too, by the light of the moon or the stars. It didn’t need much light, for it knew the way and didn’t get lost. When it had traveled for three days without stopping to rest, another flower came along on another brook. A child like you, but far far away from here, had tossed it into a brook at the same time. The two flowers kissed, and went their way together and stayed together until they both sank to the bottom.

This opening is essentially a metaphorical microcosm of the entire tale. We begin with a journey, climax with a mysterious rendezvous, and in the end: the exceedingly romantic deaths of the main characters.

Visually speaking, there is a great deal linking Dear Mili with Outside Over There, though they were done more than seven years apart. Both stories concern the fate of very young heroines. In both, there are no father-figures present, and the mothers have the same drawn and quartered look about them, seated at the same arbor, surrounded by lush plant life. In both, the same faithful German shepherd is yet seated at her side.

In Dear Mili, war has broken out in their small village, and the widowed mother must send her only child far into the woods where no enemy can harm her. “God in His mercy will show you the way,” she says. The child then embarks on a trek through a treacherous, overgrown terrain, dressed in only her slippers and her nightshirt, praying to her God to help her go on.

When it rains, she says, “God and my heart are weeping together.” Then, later, when the sky clears and the stars come out, she observes, “How bright are the nails on the great door of heaven!”

I was surprised at the strong religious tone of the story. I would have imagined the Grimms channeling much darker spirits. When the young girl comes to a house where an old, bearded man lives, the narrative informs us that this was “Saint Joseph, who long ago had cared for the Christ Child here on earth.”

For three days she stays at the home of the old man, cooks and cleans for him, while he sends her out to pick herbs and roots. After the third day, he tells her that it is time for her to return home. As a parting gift, he hands her a rosebud and says, “When this rose blooms, you will be with me again.”

The young girl is helped on her return journey by a mysterious young girl who could be her identical twin. They have the same pigtails, the same nightshirt, the same blue ribbons. The doppelganger leads the young girl to the edge of the forest, then points the rest of the way.

The last image of the book is a picture spread out over two pages. It is of the same village seen at the beginning, stone ruins, a gorgeous sunset filling the sky with color. On the left hand side steps the young girl. On the far right side sits an old woman, wrinkled and arthritic, looking nearly blind. Her frail arms are outstretched.

It has not been three days since she sent her daughter off to hide in the woods, it has been thirty years. The mother has been hoping against hope all these years that God would grant her the wish to see her little girl one last time before she dies.

All evening they sat happily together. Then they went to bed calmly and cheerfully, and next morning the neighbors found them dead. They had fallen happily asleep, and between them lay Saint Joseph’s rose in full bloom.

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