Dutch Language Blog

The Dutch Book Surprisingly Few Dutch People Know About Posted by on Mar 21, 2014 in Culture

Last month, Dutch Olympic speed skating coach Jillert Anema made waves in America when he suggested that the country’s poor performance at the Olympics has much more to do with America’s obsession with (American) football over all other sports than it did with their high-tech Under Armor skating suits.

After Anema made the remarks in an interview with CNBC, Squawk Box host Joe Kernen decided to throw in what he probably thought was a pretty clever diss.
“I mean that was a great book back in 1865 about Hans Brinker. You can always hang your hat on that. That’s the last big thing that’s happened over there.”

The book he’s referring to is HANS BRINKER, OR THE SILVER SKATES. It’s a fictional story set in the Netherlands of the 1800s about a boy determined to win the ice skating race and, with it, the coveted silver skates, so he can use the money from them to cure his father and help his starving family.

Joe Kernen’s right, it is a great book. But if you watch the interview, his little jab failed to get a reaction from Anema.

Why? Because the Dutch (generally speaking, that is) don’t know Hans Brinker.

So here’s a little history lesson for Mr. Kernen and anyone else not already in the know:

Hans Brinker Fact #1
HANS BRINKER, OR THE SILVER SKATES: A STORY OF LIFE IN HOLLAND was first published in 1865. In America.

Hans Brinker Fact #2
The book was written by a woman named Mary Mapes Dodge. An American.

Hans Brinker Fact #3
Dodge’s book is largely responsible for:
a. introducing the then Dutch sport of speed skating, and
b. popularizing the tale of the now world-famous story of the little Dutch boy plugging the dike with his finger

Hans Brinker Fact #4
Though the story is set in the Netherlands, Dodge had never actually been there. Not until after the book was published. Her information came from books and stories from her neighbors who were Dutch immigrants.

Hans Brinker Fact #5
In the Netherlands, they have adopted the name Hans Brinker and given it to the heretofore nameless boy who saved Haarlem by sticking his finger in a leaking dike until it could be patched up. There are three statues of the dike plugging Brinker in Madurodam, Spaarndam, and Harlingen.

So the next time you want to diss the Dutch (not that I’d recommend it!), try something other than the ole Hans Brinker jab.

If you’re Dutch and you knew who Hans Brinker was (before reading this, of course), give us a shout in the comments. And, since I know it’s the question everyone really wants to tackle: does Anema have a point or is it just a bad case of “euro envy?”

photo credit: Jan Willem van Wessel, Flickr creative commons
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About the Author: tiffany

Tiffany Jansen is an American magazine and copywriter in the Netherlands.


  1. Grethe:

    I’m not Dutch or American, but have heard the story about the boy with his finger in the dike, and the name Hans Brinker with it. The story of the silver skates is however, new to me.

    Ice skating is important to the Dutch, and as soon as there is a spell of cold weather, there is talk of the elfstedetocht and whether it can happen that year.

    Sports will of course be influenced by the focus it gets among the people – in my country, Norway, we’re into football during the summer, and winter sports during the winter. Norwegians are doing well in the cross country and Nordic winter sports, because most of us have a set of skis and some of us try to get good at it.

    We used to be great at ice skating too, but have fewer halls to skate in than the Dutch, Americans and swedes. All the kids learn how to skate, but it’s usually on outdoor rinks, and it’s usually more important to have fun than to go fast. I think you need a focus, as well as the right conditions in order to excel in a field.

  2. Jack Klaber:

    I’m Dutch and knew the story.
    But only after I travelled over the world and met Americans.
    If you believe you can save a dike by putting your finger in the tiny hole you will never see a speed skating winners podium from nearby!!

  3. BG:

    I’m an American, and I’ve studied Dutch as one of my foreign languages for about four years. Older Americans always bring up Hans Brinker to me for some reason when they learn about what I study.