Tuesday, July 10, 2012

An Old Classic Still Has Power to Surprise: Heidi by Joanna Spyri

Heidi (Kingfisher Classics)Heidi by Johanna Spyri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came across this when perusing Semicolon's list of 55 Free Kindle Books Worth Reading. I don't know why Heidi appealed to me at that moment but I remember loving the book when I was a child and reading it many times. I began reading it this weekend just to get a taste of the classic I loved, but had no intention of reading all the way through. Imagine my surprise to find myself hooked and when the story was about 25% through, saying to myself, "What else is there to it? Isn't this most of the story?" As I went on, I remembered that the story was more complex than I remembered.

Briefly, for the handful of people who haven't any idea of the story, Heidi is a Swiss children's classic about a five year old orphan, Heidi, who is left with her grandfather, the Alm Uncle, in his isolated hut high in the Alps. Heidi's adventures with her grandfather, Peter the goatherd, the goats themselves, and the mountains (which are a definite character in the book) are just the beginning of the story. When she is suddenly swept away to the big city, how will Heidi adapt? What will happen to those left behind who have come to depend on her sunny personality? And so forth and so on. This is a much more compelling story than I am making it sound, albeit with a nice touch of Victorian moralizing about learning to read, how hard work never hurt anyone, etc.

That leads us to the second surprising thing: about half to two-thirds of the way through, with the introduction of Clara's grandmother, there was also an introduction of God into advice and conversation about how Heidi should live. It was done in a very natural way but I didn't remember it at all. Neither did I remember how Heidi took her personal experiences with God and passed them on to others who then put them to good use.

Something this made clear to me is that atheists who worry about exposing their kids to Christian novels shouldn't fret. Raised by atheists who just didn't think religion was worth discussing, I remember talking with my mother about the details we both loved in the book. Evidently the God-talk just passed right by me as particular to the characters but not something that I was interested in at all. (God had to wait for the right moment which was 20 or 30 years later.) I did vaguely recall that the grandmother (Peter's, not Clara's) was mightily attached to her hymns but that also was a vagary I applied to her personality (or old people, possibly?) and not something which mattered to me.

I think this also applies to a lot of things that people worry about their kids being exposed to. My twenty-something girls still talk about the shock they experienced rewatching The Little Mermaid a few years ago and hearing the double entendres in Ursula's song. They accused us of exposing them to wanton behavior. We laughed at them because why would they be so shocked if they understood it in the first place? Likewise this applies to why kids love Coraline by Neil Gaiman from the first page while adults often take a while to warm up to it (guilty as charged).

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Definitely the influences we expose our children to should be age appropriate, but we can relax a little about a lot of the specifics.


  1. I have the copy of Heidi that my mother got as a birthday present from one of her brothers in 1938. I've read it a billion times, and now will need to go back for a billion-and-1 because the God language didn't leap out at me either. I also have to confess a deep and guilty fondness for the Shirley Temple version, which I may have to go watch again. Schwanli! Baerli! Fraulein Rottenmaier!

  2. Oh yes, Fraulein Rottenmaier ... never was a character better named! :-D