Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: Heidi

Heidi. Johanna Spyri. 1880/2009. Puffin Classics/Penguin.  320 pages.

The pretty little Swiss town of Mayenfeld lies at the foot of a mountain range, whose grim rugged peaks tower high above the valley below.

If the cover to Heidi had looked this pretty, this inviting, this appealing, when I was a kid, there's a good chance I wouldn't have spent most of my life avoiding it. (It didn't help that the cover of the Heidi we had was AWFUL.) What I discovered was that Heidi is a nice, satisfying read. One that may just improve upon a reread. I can easily see why Eva Ibbotson, who wrote the introduction to this edition, described reading this one as feeling like you're coming home. There's just something cozy-and-comfortable about it.

So Heidi is an orphan, she's been one since the age of one. She has spent the next four years with her Aunt Detie. But at the start of the novel, at age five, she's being "given" to her grandfather. Detie has decided that enough is enough. She's not the only relative this kid has, and, well, she wants to live her own life without being a mother to her dead sister's kid. If my description is blunt and ugly, it's because Detie is. The way she speaks of the child--of Heidi--well it made me take an instant disliking to her. (And nothing in the book makes me change my opinion of her.) So Heidi and Detie are on their way up the mountain. The grandfather has a moment or two of doubt, but, Heidi erases his fears early on. He takes an instant liking to his granddaughter. And he notices how bright and wonderful she really is. Readers see this bond grow and grow as the two spend time together. No one could love grandfather more than Heidi, and no one could love Heidi more than her grandfather. Heidi has found her a home at last. And all seems right with the world. Heidi loves her grandfather, loves her new home, loves the mountains, loves the flowers, loves the goats, loves the goat herder, Peter, loves Peter's Grannie. Here is a girl that has a love of life, who doesn't want for anything.

But. All that changes with (boo, hiss) the arrival of Aunt Detie who seems to think that Heidi will be better off away from her grandfather. It has been arranged for Heidi to become the companion of a sickly little girl, Clara. Heidi has no choice in the matter. And is told that she can't have an opinion about it--essentially. Now, Heidi does like Clara well enough. It's not like she HATES Clara. I'm not sure it's in Heidi's nature to HATE anybody. But Heidi is definitely upset that she's been taken from everybody she loves, the home she loves, etc. And city life just isn't the same. Heidi doesn't feel like she belongs there.

The highlight of her time in the city may just be when Clara's grandmother comes to visit. This grandmother takes the time to get to know Heidi. She comes to love Heidi and care deeply about her. She encourages Heidi and gives her attention. She says you can learn to read and write. You are smart, you are capable, you can do it. Which is just the message this little girl needs to hear! When Heidi does learn to read, she is given a lovely picture book by this grandmother. But perhaps even more important than that gift is the gift of faith. For this grandmother--Mrs. Sesemann--talks to Heidi of God and prayer. She encourages the young girl to pray to God, to seek Him. She teaches Heidi that when God doesn't answer prayers right away--in the way we expect, in the time period we expect--that doesn't mean God hasn't heard. It's just that God knows what is best for us, he knows what we need, and when we need it. God may seem to be delaying his promises, or slow to working his promises, but God is a God who makes all things beautiful in HIS time.

So does Heidi get to return to her grandfather? What do you think?! Would it be so satisfying and happy-making if she didn't?

While I'm not quite sure that Heidi herself is flawed--she seems to represent everything pure and innocent and good in the world--the rest of the characters within the novel are flawed. And many--though not all--are lovable. Two of my favorites are Heidi's Grandfather (Uncle Alp) and Dr. Classen.

One of my favorite scenes with Dr. Classen:
"When you can do no more yourself," said Heidi confidently, "tell God."
"Those are good words, my dear," said the doctor, "but suppose it was God Himself who sent the sorrow."
Heidi sat pondering for a while. She was sure God could always help, but was trying to find the answer out of her own experiences. "I think you have to wait," she said at last, "and keep on thinking that God has something good which He's going to give you out of the sad thing, but you have to be patient. You see, when something's awfully bad, you don't know about the good bit coming, and you think it's going on for ever."
"I hope you will always feel like that, Heidi," he said, and fell silent, drinking in the scene before him.  (202)
And my favorite scene with the Grandfather--well, there are many, many scenes that I love between these two--is when she reads him the story of the prodigal son from her picture story book. The quote comes from an online edition of Heidi, not the exact same translation as the Puffin classic. (And I liked the Puffin classic better. In the book this comes from pages 172-175.)
"If God had let me come at once, as I prayed, then everything would have been different, I should only have had a little bread to bring to grandmother, and I should not have been able to read, which is such a comfort to her; but God has arranged it all so much better than I knew how to; everything has happened just as the other grandmother said it would. Oh, how glad I am that God did not let me have at once all I prayed and wept for! And now I shall always pray to God as she told me, and always thank Him, and when He does not do anything I ask for I shall think to myself, It's just like it was in Frankfurt: God, I am sure, is going to do something better still. So we will pray every day, won't we, grandfather, and never forget Him again, or else He may forget us."
"And supposing one does forget Him?" said the grandfather in a low voice.
"Then everything goes wrong, for God lets us then go where we like, and when we get poor and miserable and begin to cry about it no one pities us, but they say, You ran away from God, and so God, who could have helped you, left you to yourself."
"That is true, Heidi; where did you learn that?"
"From grandmamma; she explained it all to me."
The grandfather walked on for a little while without speaking, then he said, as if following his own train of thought: "And if it once is so, it is so always; no one can go back, and he whom God has forgotten, is forgotten for ever."
"Oh, no, grandfather, we can go back, for grandmamma told me so, and so it was in the beautiful tale in my book--but you have not heard that yet; but we shall be home directly now, and then I will read it you, and you will see how beautiful it is." And in her eagerness Heidi struggled faster and faster up the steep ascent, and they were no sooner at the top than she let go her grandfather's hand and ran into the hut. The grandfather slung the basket off his shoulders in which he had brought up a part of the contents of the trunk which was too heavy to carry up as it was. Then he sat down on his seat and began thinking.
Heidi soon came running out with her book under her arm. "That's right, grandfather," she exclaimed as she saw he had already taken his seat, and in a second she was beside him and had her book open at the particular tale, for she had read it so often that the leaves fell open at it of their own accord. And now in a sympathetic voice Heidi began to read of the son when he was happily at home, and went out into the fields with his father's flocks, and was dressed in a fine cloak, and stood leaning on his shepherd's staff watching as the sun went down, just as he was to be seen in the picture. But then all at once he wanted to have his own goods and money and to be his own master, and so he asked his father to give him his portion, and he left his home and went and wasted all his substance. And when he had nothing left he hired himself out to a master who had no flocks and fields like his father, but only swine to keep; and so he was obliged to watch these, and he only had rags to wear and a few husks to eat such as the swine fed upon. And then he thought of his old happy life at home and of how kindly his father had treated him and how ungrateful he had been, and he wept for sorrow and longing. And he thought to himself, "I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I am not worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.'" And when he was yet a great way off his father saw him . . . Here Heidi paused in her reading. "What do you think happens now, grandfather?" she said. "Do you think the father is still angry and will say to him, 'I told you so!' Well, listen now to what comes next." His father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." But the father said to his servants, "Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf and kill it; and let us eat and be merry, for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." And they began to be merry.
"Isn't that a beautiful tale, grandfather," said Heidi, as the latter continued to sit without speaking, for she had expected him to express pleasure and astonishment.
"You are right, Heidi; it is a beautiful tale," he replied, but he looked so grave as he said it that Heidi grew silent herself and sat looking quietly at her pictures. Presently she pushed her book gently in front of him and said, "See how happy he is there," and she pointed with her finger to the figure of the returned prodigal, who was standing by his father clad in fresh raiment as one of his own sons again.
A few hours later, as Heidi lay fast asleep in her bed, the grandfather went up the ladder and put his lamp down near her bed so that the light fell on the sleeping child. Her hands were still folded as if she had fallen asleep saying her prayers, an expression of peace and trust lay on the little face, and something in it seemed to appeal to the grandfather, for he stood a long time gazing down at her without speaking. At last he too folded his hands, and with bowed head said in a low voice, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee and am not worthy to be called thy son." And two large tears rolled down the old man's cheeks.
Early the next morning he stood in front of his hut and gazed quietly around him. The fresh bright morning sun lay on mountain and valley. The sound of a few early bells rang up from the valley, and the birds were singing their morning song in the fir trees. He stepped back into the hut and called up, "Come along, Heidi! the sun is up! Put on your best frock, for we are going to church together!"
Not that Heidi is free from some oddities! I read somewhere that Johanna Spyri didn't really "like" school. And perhaps that shows in Heidi and Peter's reluctance to go to school and learn to read. Peter especially seems angry about it. Heidi, well, initially hers was thinking that she was too stupid to ever learn anything. So when Heidi does return to the mountain, to her grandfather, to Peter, she wants to help him learn to read. But as a modern reader, I can't really say I *like* her method of teaching the alphabet! Was this little rhyme something she learned from Clara's tutor? Perhaps. But maybe she should have recalled how it was the kind, encouraging, you-can-do-it words of Clara's grandmother that inspired her the most in her own learning.
If A B C you do not know
Before the judge you'll have to go

If D E F you cannot say
Bad luck is sure to come your way

If you forget your H J K
You'll have misfortune all the day

If L and M you can't say clear
You'll have to pay a fine, I fear.

Trouble will be in store for you
If you can't say N O P Q

If you get stuck at R S T
A dunce's cap your lot will be

If you confuse a V with U,
You'll find yourself in Timbuctoo

If over W you fall,
Beware the rod upon the wall

If letter X you can't recall,
You'll get no food today at all

If you find Y is hard to say,
They'll laugh at you at school today.

If Z should tie you up in knots
They'll send you to the Hottentots.
Heidi seems to be an optimistic hope-filled novel about brokenness. There were some very touching moments--very human moments--and then there were the purely satisfying sweet moments. And I definitely enjoyed it!!!  

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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