Johanna Spyri (Spee-ree), the author of the children's classic, Heidi, was born July 12, 1827. Heidi, of course, has been through many editions and adaptations, including several film versions in the one hundred twenty years since it was written. Heidi is an orphan, left with a misanthropic grandfather who lives in a hut high on a mountainside in the Swiss Alps. The sunny, happy child is an agent of change for many people: her grandfather comes back into society; she befriends a lonely goatherd who, with her help, learns to read; a crippled friend who visits her is cured and walks; a doctor who continues to mourn the death of his own child is brought back to an appreciation of life. In spite of some sentimentality, it still is a wonderfully empathetic portrayal of children, particularly of the emotions they feel.
But its chief charm is Spyri's evocation of place. She was raised near Zurich, in a house on the high Swiss Plateau overlooking Lake Zurich, flower covered Alpine meadows, sparkling mountain streams, and towering peaks. It was an idyllic setting, and Spyri drew on these scenes of her childhood for her descriptions of the out of doors in her book. For example, a friend visits Heidi one day and they hike up above the hut she lives in with her grandfather: "Heidi," Spyri writes, "Led her friend to her favorite spot where she was accustomed to sit and enjoy the beauty around her; over the heights and over the far green valley hung the golden glory of the autumn day. The great snowfield sparkled in the bright sunlight, and the two gray rocky peaks rose in their ancient majesty against the dark blue sky. A soft, light morning breeze blew deliciously across the mountain, gently stirring the bluebells that still remained of the summer's wealth of flowers. Over head, the great bird was flying round and round in wide circles, poised on his large wings he floated contentedly in the blue ether. Everything was so beautiful, so beautiful.1 (p. 227)
One critic has noted that "no child who has read and loved Heidi will ever enter Switzerland without a feeling of coming home. Nothing about Switzerland will ever seem alien to [him]."2 This is one reason for the book's popularity. For many years, it was one of the top five favorite books children read and, when asked why, they liked it so much they said it was because Spyri "made them understand and love Switzerland."3
Copyright 2006© Rita Smith
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Friday, 30-Jun-2006 14:59:55 EDT