For many children, this is the classic introduction to the people and history of Holland--as indeed it was meant to be by its American author. Hans Brinker became a bestseller upon its publication in 1865 and is to the Netherlands what Heidi is to Switzerland.
As the story opens we meet Hans, a main character of the novel, and his sister Gretel. Both of them are so poor that they can't afford their own ice-skates, getting by instead on the slow wooden skates Hans carves for them, but both of them still dream of winning the next ice race. Hans has nearly saved up enough money for his own skates, but then he hears of a famous doctor who could cure his father--a witless invalid since an accident on the dike.
Meanwhile, a group of boys from the village of Broek, where the Brinkers live, decide to undertake a skating trip to the Hague with Ben Dobbs, the visiting English cousin of Jacob Poot. Under the leadership of Peter van Holp the boys travel through Amsterdam, Leiden, and Haarlem on their way, telling and hearing many of the wonderful stories of the history of the Dutch Republic, and even manage to catch a dangerous thief. But who will win the silver skates, and what is the secret that has been lost since Raff Brinker's accident?
Hans Brinker is a great story on its own account, but I think my favourite thing about it was all the history it contains, as well as its vivid portrayal of Dutch life in the 1800s. Its author drew heavily on Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic, and so the story is punctuated with many stories of the Dutch fight for independence. Like many other nineteenth century books, this one also attempts to hold up an example for young men in its main characters--they are characters you enjoy reading about on account of their sense of responsibility. The only tiresome thing is that like so many lady novelists, Mary Mapes Dodge can't resist throwing in a number of embryo romances among the teenage cast.
But these are understated and the book remains an enjoyable story and a treasury of information on the history, geography, and customs of the Netherlands.