Friday, April 11, 2008

Johanna Spyri

by Johanna Spyri
Recommended Age: 12+

Believe it or not, I had never read this book, one of the best-loved classics of children’s literature worldwide, until the time came for this review. I had heard from a friend of mine that it is a wonderful book. My friend had it read to him when he and his sister were small children, and he reads it now to his own small children. It is a tradition that could go on and on in many families.

Heidi is one of many books that Johanna Spyri wrote, for both children and adults, but it is the one book she is remembered for. It tells the story of a small girl who has lost her parents. All she has left for family is a shrewish aunt on her mother’s side, and a grumpy old grandfather on her father’s side. Shrewish drags Heidi up a big Swiss mountain and dumps her on Grumpy’s doorstep, and the tale takes off from there.

Actually, Grumpy is known as Uncle Alp, when he isn’t simply called Grandfather. Ostracized from the village at the foot of the mountain, Uncle Alp lives a hermit’s life on the mountain with his two goats and his woodworking to keep him busy. Almost the only person he ever sees is Peter the goat boy. Now Uncle Alp is in charge of little Heidi, a naturally happy girl who derives much of her happiness from nature. Heidi warms his heart, and brings happiness to many other people as well, as she runs around the high meadows and comforts a blind old lady and makes friends with the goats, the flowers, and the sunshine.

After a while, Heidi’s shrewish aunt comes back and sends Heidi to live with a rich family in Frankfurt. Though, for the most part, the family is very kind to Heidi, she grows deathly homesick and is really happy to come back to her simple mountain lifestyle. In the end, her love of the mountains changes the lives of Uncle Alp, the blind old lady, many people in the village, and the family in Frankfurt too.

Woven into this story is a sort of Sunday School lesson about trusting in God and remembering to pray to Him. A really grouchy reviewer would probably complain that, as the story goes along, the characters become less lifelike and their story more like a piece of religious propaganda. But I’m not quite that grouchy (or shrewish, either). The story does make some excellent points about the relationship between faith and the fortunes or misfortunes of life. But I challenge people of any religion (except, I suppose, religious atheism) to find anything in this book that their religion could not accept. And I dare anyone reading this book not to be moved by the beauty of Heidi’s mountain home, by the strength of her love for it, by her innocence and sweetness, and by the enchanting way all these miraculous things seem to become real through the deceptively simple words of Johanna Spyri. It really is an amazing accomplishment.

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