Written in 1880 by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, the Heidi books are the best known works of Swiss literature. The story focuses on events in the life a young orphan sent to live with her grumpy grandfather in the Swiss Alps. Just as she is beginning to get used to her surroundings, Heidi is sent away from the tranquility of the mountains to tend to a sick cousin in the city. Much more than a children’s story, the story is also a lesson on the nature of freedom. (from Goodreads)
The first time I read Heidi I was about 9 years old. My copy was that abridged version with lots of illustrations– part of that series that introduced kids to lots of classics, including Dracula and Charles Dickens. You know the ones I’m talking about? They’ve got huge fonts! Anyway, I don’t remember much about that experience, but I suppose I must have been bored out of my mind because otherwise I would have retained some stronger emotion (as I tend to do with books). I don’t even know if I should count this as a reread or not, since technically I haven’t read this complete version before…eh, whatever.
Heidi is, I guess, one of the most famous books to do two things. 1. It’s got the “happy child heals a grumpy person’s broken heart” thing which pops up in Annie and A Christmas Carol (does Tiny Tim count?), etc. 2. It’s got the “living in the country is best for children” thing hardcore. Even more hardcore than The Secret Garden or the Trixie Belden books! It’s not exactly subtle about, like, anything, including the importance of saying your prayers and being cheerful. All stuff that seems par for course in the time it was written– which makes for both a good and bad reading experience.
The good: it shows how people thought about things like health and children and religion back then (or at least how Johanna Spyri thought about them). Also it’s got really nice descriptions of the Alps, and of how people lived in the Swiss countryside, and of how children process things compared to adults (hint: very differently). Plus there’s some really charming characterizations of goats! (I like goats. I think they’re cute; I fed one at the petting zoo last Fall. Anyway.)
The bad: it IS so unsubtle it basically smacks you in the face with everything Johanna Spyri believed in. I don’t think kids need ideas and themes and whatnot to smack them in the face so they’ll notice them; kids already notice a lot of stuff. Plus, it really did feel like JS was preaching to me to be and do a lot of things, and I have never liked being preached at. I don’t mind having an author’s opinion in their book (it’s kind of hard NOT to have an author’s opinion of something in their book), but I’d prefer it if they expressed those opinions without hitting me upside the head with them.1
If I ignore the preaching, though, it is a very sweet little book. I like the characters, and I like the character growth of the grandfather and the doctor through their contact with Heidi. I like that Heidi wasn’t just always cheerful– she had sad moments, too, and that gave her some depth. I loved the language used to describe the locations! And maybe if I was a late Victorian child I’d love the rest of it, too. Who knows?
I don’t think I’ll be reading another Johanna Spyri book, but this one wasn’t all bad, even considering the face-smacking. I’m glad I finally read the complete version, although I can see why my younger self wasn’t wowed with the original experience.2
Read: January 14-15, 2011
There’s a Shirley Temple Heidi movie! I completely forgot about that.