My two favorite aunts gave me Heidi when I was eight years old. I don’t know if it was Christmas or birthday; all I know is I have them to thank not only for this but for Anne of Green Gables (and my very favorite stuffed bear Snowball), bless their names forever. As with Anne, I read Heidi over and over (and over), and followed up with some of the sequels from the library, and loved it dearly; unlike with Anne, though, I haven’t read Heidi in many years. The Goodreads Kindred Spirits group chose it as their “Akin to Anne” group read for last June, and I fully intended to join in then, but in the end it took being faced on December 30 with a Challenge shortcoming of two books for me to pick up what surely had to be a quick read so as to meet my goal. (It worked.)
I was a little worried. Childhood memories are fragile. It doesn’t take much to stain a current opinion, leaching backward to taint what was so beloved. But, I’m happy to say, Heidi came through it just about unscathed.
Peter didn’t, but I’ll come to that.
The story: Heidi is an orphan at six, and lives with her aunt until said aunt gets a job and decides that the girl’s grandfather is just going to have to serve his time looking after the child, no matter how alarming his reputation is. Just about everyone Aunt Dete meets exclaims in horror at the idea of leaving the poor child with the old man, the Alm-Uncle; he hates everyone, and makes no secret of it. She’s doomed. Dete is not an admirable character, but I will say for her that she is tough: she ploughs on despite the exclamations of horror and barely even gives the Alm-Uncle a chance to say no before she vanishes, leaving grandfather and granddaughter together.
And it’s fine. It’s better than fine. Heidi flourishes, with her grandfather providing quiet but loving support and the goats and Peter providing entertainment, and her own active nature keeping her constantly occupied. And Grandfather flourishes a bit himself, softening and expanding a bit. And when that aunt of hers pops up again a couple of years later and sweeps Heidi away with her again to dump her on a wealthy household that needs a companion for wheelchair-bound Klara, Heidi’s small following on the mountain suffers her loss.
It was startling how much I remembered. I, who have trouble remembering details from a book I read last month, remembered the white rolls, and the kittens, and what happened to the wheelchair; I remembered the hayloft beds (maybe because I wanted one so badly when I was little) and the wonderful goats’ milk and the other bed behind the stove. And it was all still very, very sweet.
Except for Peter. I was taken aback by what a nasty piece of work he had the potential to be. I remember loving Peter. Perhaps that was because of the other books, but here – here he is selfish and lazy and greedy, and a little stupid. He shakes his fists at the interloper on Heidi’s time, and then there’s the wheelchair incident; he did damage. He was a little scary. If he hadn’t had the fear of capture put into him, and hadn’t had the Alm-Uncle’s influence curbing his behavior, it seems like he might have ended up a serious problem.
Heidi is a type of little heroine which I tend to doubt is written much anymore. Everything impacts her personally, from the grandmother’s blindness to the tribulations of the goats. She’s a simple, entirely selfless child with no desire to be anything else. She’s not clever, per se; she can learn and learn quickly when she wants to, but she’d rather be out romping with the goats than reading. Which, now that I think of it, very likely has a good deal to do with her decline in Frankfort with Klara: she went from having hours of exercise in the fresh air, along with a simple diet (very simple – I was a little shocked at the amount of bread and butter and cheese and milk, and the paucity of meat and green vegetables) to almost no exercise and three meals a day of rich food (with more processed flour, at that). No wonder the child felt poorly. It wasn’t just homesickness and worry over the elderly folk on the mountain.
The rest of the cast of characters were very satisfying. Peter’s mother and grandmother were drawn as simple, grateful folk; I’ve been trying to remember what it was that I read in which the poor characters continually refused gifts, even of things they needed desperately, because they could not accept “charity”; Peter’s family had no such compunctions, and the gifts they received did what they were supposed to do: they gave joy to the recipients and the givers. I loved the doctor and Klara’s grandmother – they were beautifully drawn. I wanted to smack Klara’s father a bit, or at least to find out what was so very important in his business life that he had to abandon his daughter to the servants and the so aptly-named Frau Rottenmeier for months on end. The French maid was surprisingly bitchy (though I can’t help but wonder if some of her comments weren’t effectively translated; they were delivered as cutting remarks, but read like cryptic non sequiturs). The butler, Sebastian, was a love. And, last but not least, I enjoyed watching the grandfather show a bit more depth and three-dimensionality by the end of the book.
The affection I have for the book remains intact. I love it when that happens.
- Do Childhood Books Shape Us? (lauragraceweldon.com)