Tuesday, 11 April 2017

#3 A book from your childhood

Heidi by Johanna Spyri 

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it. (As You Like It, Act II Sc i 562-65)

What could Shakespeare have meant by that? Well, Heidi was the one who gave me an answer.  

Growing up wouldn’t have been growing up if it hadn’t been for all the great stories and books that kept me company. So choosing a book from my childhood, was a not-so-simple task.But I did choose one in the end – ironically, this also happens to be book I had never read. Its fame and allure to me was in what it simply was.   

Heidi is a wonderful treasure of a story – it is about a little girl called Adelaide a.k.a Heidi who has to go and live with her grandfather up in the mountains in Dorfli, Switzerland. Since she is an orphan, her Aunt Dete is left with no other choice but to leave the child with her closest living relative. All the villagers warn her against leaving the young kid with Alm-Uncle (as they call him) since they say he is ill-tempered, never comes to church and stays alone on top of the mountains, as a social recluse. However, when Heidi comes to stay, all his reserve and bitterness slowly starts melting away. And why wouldn’t it? Heidi is a full of joy, gratefulness and childlike enthusiasm. We will be swept away by her innocence and genuine concern for those around her.

All doesn’t go well though, since her aunt comes back to take Heidi away and places her in a house at Frankfurt, where she is to be a companion to Clara, an invalid and the only daughter of Herr Sesemann. Heidi’s introduction to the housekeeper, Fraulein Rottenmeier will have us understand how much we forget the innocence of childhood in the hectic pace of growing up.

“Mercy upon us! You do not know how to read! Is it really so?” exclaimed Fraulein Rottenmeir, greatly horrified. “Is it possible – not to read? What have you learnt then?”
“Nothing,” said Heidi with unflinching truthfulness.

True, Heidi didn’t know how to read at that point. She had never been taught or gone to school. As her Aunt Dete explains, “she speaks exactly as she thinks”. Well, in real life, school will definitely put an end to that!  

Heidi became an important part of my childhood, when a TV series (anime version) began on Cartoon Network, which completely mesmerized the whole family! Everyone at home, grandparents, parents and we kids used to eagerly wait for the show and watch it in a delightful silence, taking it all in. It has never happened for any other show, and perhaps never will again. But, that’s what Heidi will always be – timeless.

However, looking back, it was probably the vivid evocation of the Swiss Alps and the simple, wholesome meals that captured my imagination. Have since then, wanted to live in the mountains, like Heidi, with milk, cheese and bread being the mainstay. Probably halfway there with my devotion to bread!

It was a great thrill to all when we stumbled upon a movie version (1937) starring the inimitable Shirley Temple and once again held us spellbound. Newer versions do come, but probably wouldn’t be able to capture the magic as young Shirley Temple does. 


The author who gave us this wonderful story isn’t very widely known outside Switzerland. It could be due to the fact that she wrote in German. Johanna Spyri published this book in 1880, and four years after she lost both her husband and her only son. She continued to work for charity and published over fifty books before her death in 1901. She may not have left behind a whole lot of stories which we (the English-speaking world) remember her by, but with just this one spellbinding character of young Heidi, her name will forever be remembered.

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