Friday Fictions: “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri

Today, Friday Favorites returns under a new name: Friday Fictions.

And since I recently moved to Switzerland, we’ll make it topical: this week the book is “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri. The book was written in German; I read an English translation. It’s free to read online at Project Gutenberg (English, German).

This book was apparently once a classic of Western kid lit but I didn’t read it until a few months ago on a whim. It turns out to be very Swiss, and very charming if you like the trinity of God, Nature, and Dairy Products.

So, the plot! Heidi is an orphan who has been raised by Dete, the sister of her dead mother. Dete has a chance at a new job but can’t bring a child with her, so she drops Heidi off with Heidi’s grandfather on a mountaintop.

The grandfather is known far and wide to be a crank, and the village gossip network scolds Dete all the way down the mountain. Fortunately for Heidi, grandfather takes to her very well. Plus Heidi is basically a five year old manic pixie, so I suppose Dete didn’t do too bad a job. She has a fantastic time with her grandfather, his goats, Peter the goat boy, and living on bread and milk and cheese (SO much cheese toast), and enjoying the great outdoors.

But then Heidi turns eight and Dete takes her off the mountain to be a lady’s companion to Clara, a young girl with unnamed but serious health problems. Clara’s family is ROLLING IN IT. The housekeeper is none too pleased at the thought of basically a mountain goat of a girl who can’t read or write being a companion for the young miss.

“Mercy upon us! you do not know how to read! Is it really so?” exclaimed Fraulein Rottenmeier, greatly horrified. “Is it possible—not able to read? What have you learnt then?”

“Nothing,” said Heidi with unflinching SWISS truthfulness.

Heidi and Clara become great friends, which eventually leads to Clara going to Switzerland and the whole gang coming together. And then A Miracle Occurs, of the same type that The Secret Garden invokes at its end.

Like I said, this book is VERY SWISS. To begin with, it is obsessed with nature and God. Like there’s a literal repentance scene and a whole Prodigal Son arc with the Grandfather. The Swiss are less obsessed with God these days but let me tell you, those two things are still your only options on a Sunday, unless you drag yourself to a Hauptbahnhof. In case you are wondering, public transit does run on those days. Gotta convey you up those mountains and/or to church somehow.

The nature comes, well, naturally. There are pages and pages about the grass, the flowers, the fields, the trees, the wind, the snow … and it’s accurate, too. Spyri wasn’t making it up. OTOH God drops in seemingly at random points in the text, swooping in here and there to be given credit for this or that development.

The book is also, as you may expect, heavy on the dairy. Not for nothing is there a Heidi brand of milk.

Now for the famous wheelchair bit. Before I read the book, this was the only thing I vaguely knew about the plot. For the uninitiated (spoiler alert? although the book was published in 1881): Clara needs to use a wheelchair when Heidi meets her. When Clara goes to Switzerland to visit Heidi, she starts to get stronger and healthier from Nonstop Dairy. Grandfather starts giving her very light PT, holding her up while encouraging her to put some weight on her feet.

Then, Peter the goat boy gets really jealous of Clara spending all this time with Heidi and shoves the wheelchair down the mountain. Later on, Peter (IMO) totally gets what’s coming to him, but in the meanwhile, Heidi gets Peter to help her give Clara more PT, supporting her while having her try to walk, and over the course of months, Clara eventually does become able to walk, although at the end we still see that she needs to lean on Heidi.

If one were inclined to give a charitable explanation to this, one could say Clara was suffering from some kind of nutritional deficiency, which eating healthy food in the mountains was able to reverse. If one weren’t, then it’s a miraculous cure steeped in dairy-fueled ableism. I’m not in a position to make that judgement.

But there’s something I am in a position to say something about. I found myself unexpectedly thinking over and over about the character of Dete, Heidi’s aunt. She actually isn’t there very often but is responsible for kicking most of the plot into action. The text is on the side of Dete being a selfish person, first for leaving Heidi with Grandfather so that she can have a job, and then for dragging Heidi to Frankfurt as child labor. I don’t dispute that those weren’t kind actions. But I keep thinking, what choices did Dete feel like she had? She is a servant at the mercy of capricious rich employers. Her parents are dead and her only living relation is an uncle who is literally a hermit with two goats living in a mountain shack. And she can’t have a child with her while she works. Living in righteous poverty with a child is still living in poverty, and that’s not some kind of noble decision. Poverty is bad for kids! Trying to secure a financial future for Heidi as well as herself is not cruelty in and of itself. Dete is by no means a saint, but I feel a little uncomfortable that the text casts her in a bad light for wanting to make some freaking money to support herself and her sister’s child.

Of course, Dete ultimately succeeds, in that by the end of the story, Clara’s family loves Heidi so much that they consider her one of the family and will provide for her once Grandfather passes on. And the book makes an anvil out of the religious idea that God can turn bad things into good things, so you could consider that another instance of the same point. By that point Dete has pretty much vanished from the text so I guess we’ll never know. But I do know that I will always come down on the side of giving women more choice in their lives. Ende.

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