Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Heidi, by Johanna Spyri

Heidi is such a perennial classic that it’s easy to assume that it must be somewhat stale, tired and overly familiar. It’s place in popular culture has become almost ubiquitous, with umpteen movie versions made, most notably starring the queen of cute, Shirley Temple. Yet books don’t get to be classics for no reason, and Heidi proves to be as refreshing as the high mountain air that is the novel’s restorative motif.

Plot Synopsis of Heidi

The plot of Heidi is pretty straight forward. A young orphan girl, Heidi, who has been looked after by her aunt Deta, is brought to live with her reclusive and somewhat grumpy grandfather. Deta must offload her niece as she must earn money by going to work for a family in Frankfurt, the Sesemanns.

Almost immediately Heidi manages to disarm her grandfather with her delightful innocence and simple joy of life. Heidi also meets and makes friends with Peter, a young goat-herd.

Three years later Deta returns, and it is decided to bring Heidi to Frankfurt to help 12-year-old Clara Sesemann, who is a cripple and cannot walk. While Heidi makes immediate friends with Clara, she finds herself at odds with the strict housekeeper, Miss Rottenmeier. Heidi uses her time productively, and learns to read, but is soon feeling homesick. This homesickness turns into a real physical degeneration, and Heidi becomes pale and thin. It is decided that it’s now best to send Heidi back to live with her grandfather.

Of course the mountain air and daily dose of fresh goat’s milk (which tastes of cinnamon and sugar, we are told), soon sets Heidi to rights. Her grandfather is also happier than ever with Heidi’s return, and even descends down the mountain and makes friends with the villagers. On doctor’s orders, Clara is told to visit Heidi, in the hope that this will help with her poor health.

All goes well, until Peter, the goad-herd, becomes jealous of the close intimacy between Clara and Heidi. In a fit of rage, he pushes Clara’s wheelchair down the mountain. The good that results from this dark deed is that Clara finds the will and the means to walk.

Peter the goat-herd suffers all sorts of guilt, but when the truth finally outs he finds himself the beneficiary of Clara’s grandmother’s Christian values. She promises him a weekly stipend.

Main Themes of Heidi

Heidi’s main theme is the restorative and healing power of nature. Up on the mountain peak where the grandfather lives, all is pure. The air is crisp and invigorating, and the discerning goats saunter about picking the finest herbs to eat, thereby ensuring they produce the choicest milk. The sun always shines and it never seems to rain. Every moment Heidi spends on the alp is a guarantee of mental and physical health, qualities that anyone who ascends can enjoy.

A subset to this benevolent nature is a Christian morality that runs right throughout the book. Heidi’s first and most important moral lessons are about the inherent goodness of the Christian God. When Heidi learns to read, the first things she reads are Bible stories. She ends up almost an accidental preacher when she reads from her story book the tale of the Prodigal son to her grandfather. This has such a stirring effect that the old man is prompted to abandon his reclusive lifestyle and descend the mountain to make friends with the village people.

By the novel’s end, the two themes – God and benevolent nature – have been virtually wound up into one. The healing powers of nature – sunshine, fresh herbs and sweet goat’s milk – are really the sublime workings of God. The reader who can’t accept these basic precepts, or can’t at least appreciate their aesthetic sense, will struggle with Heidi.

Overall, the reason for the novel’s ongoing appeal is its authenticity. Johanna Spyri in essence wrote Heidi as a hymn to her native Switzerland. A deep love of place is what most informs Heidi, with themes of religion and moral good built around an incorrputible nature. This is a Rousseauist view of nature, with all essentially benevolent and good, as opposed to a cruel, Sade-like nature, “red in tooth and claw” as the poet Tennyson characterised it.

Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. Published by Puffin Classics. ISBN-13: 978-0141322568

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