Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552
In 1816, the folktale collector Wilhelm Grimm wrote to a young girl, Mili, a letter that included a story. The letter was preserved by the family; its existence was made public knowledge in 1983. This first published edition in English is translated by Ralph Manheim and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
The story’s unnamed protagonist is a little girl “who was always obedient and said her prayers.” She lives with her mother, a widow, who marvels at her child’s good fortune: “My child must have a guardian angel.” When war comes, the anxious mother sends her into the forest and entrusts her to God’s care. Guided by an unseen angel, the little girl endures a fearful storm and presses on until she finds a cottage. The old man who lives there--who is actually Saint Joseph--welcomes her and sets her simple tasks. She spends three happy days with him, working and playing with a beautiful little girl who resembles her--actually her guardian angel. As he finally sends her away, Joseph presents her with a rosebud, promising, “When this rose blooms, you will be with me again.” Her angel-friend is there to guide her back to her village. Surprised to find it much changed, the little girl makes her way to her mother’s house. An old woman sitting outside raises her arms in welcome; it is then that the child finds that what to her seemed three days has been thirty years: “All the fear and misery her mother had suffered during the great war had passed her by, and her whole life had been just one joyful moment.” Mother and daughter go to sleep that evening with Saint Joseph’s rose between them; the next morning the neighbors find them dead, with the rose in full bloom.
Readers who are familiar with Grimm tales will notice that DEAR MILI is similar in some ways to those tales: The heroine is separated from her mother and undergoes individuation as her endurance is tested in the forest. In other ways, however, this story does not follow the classic fairy-tale schema. For example, evil is not given form as a witch, a beast, or a selfish stepmother; instead, it is represented by the devastation of war. Explicit references to God, angels, and saints constitute another departure from the fairy-tale form. Finally--and significantly--the story ends with the protagonist’s death. Such an ending makes DEAR MILI most appropriate for the child who has suffered loss of a loved one. (Sendak has speculated that it was written in response to the death of Mili’s mother.)
Sendak’s artwork is sensitive and evocative. Facial expressions are superbly nuanced. As the mother bids farewell to her child, for example, the girl’s slightly frowning profile conveys heartbreaking bewilderment and pain. Ever a master of dreamscapes, Sendak has gone beyond simple representation of the tale’s events, giving it twentieth century resonances. For example, in Saint Joseph’s garden the child and her angel-friend are shown gazing at tombstones bearing Hebrew inscriptions; one shows a Star of David. Thus, though Sendak pictures Heaven as a place of beauty--with music and enormous brilliant flowers--he also suggests that there the Holocaust and other evil times are remembered, and that there perhaps even the most searing pain can be contemplated and resolved.