Book Review: Heidi
When Johanna Spyri wrote Heidi, life was nothing like it is today. The world in this story for kids, first published in 1881, is an almost alien one, largely unimaginable for us, if it weren’t for history books, classic literature and its Hollywood adaptations. While the contrast between late-19th century life in the Swiss mountains and the city of Frankfurt does drive much of the story’s plot, this classic story is, at its heart, about people and relationships. And that’s what makes Heidi a wonderful book for kids to read more than 130 years later.
Heidi is a lively 5-year-old girl whose default emotion is happy. Orphaned at the age of 1, she lives with her maternal grandmother and aunt until her aunt gets a good job to which Heidi can’t accompany her. So she packs Heidi off to her paternal grandfather, known to the world as Uncle Alp, who lives alone in a hut on the Swiss mountainside and inspires fear in the nearby townspeople.
Heidi continues to live a joyful life with her grandfather, befriending Peter the goatherd, his family, and even his goats. But it is a temporary idyll. Two years later, her aunt returns to take Heidi to Frankfurt, where she is to live as a companion to a young rich girl named Clara. Life away from Uncle Alp – and filled with rules imposed by Clara’s governess Mrs. Rottenmeier – takes a toll on Heidi, who wants nothing but to return to her home in the mountains.
Heidi enriches the lives of all whom she encounters – Uncle Alp, Peter, his Grannie, Clara, Clara’s Grandmamma, and Dr. Classen. They are not minor characters in Heidi’s story; they teach her valuable lessons at every step. In return, all Heidi wants is for the people she loves (this is a long list) to be happy. Therein lies the beauty of this book, in which kindness, patience, selflessness, understanding, and judgment star alongside the human characters. These morals combine into a larger, underlying message that perseverance and willpower can make even the impossible possible.
Heidi is not a quick read; it took me more than three hours to read this book from start to finish. There are multiple characters and story arcs spanning many mountain winters. But it isn’t tedious. Heidi’s antics easily made me smile, and the story’s most touching moments brought tears. Still, the book itself is an exercise in perseverance and probably best for kids aged 10 and older, who have the patience to stick with a lovely story made a little heavy by its many messages.
One of these messages, which appears throughout the book, is the belief that God is always looking out for us and does what is best for us even if it doesn’t appear so at the time. The late 1800s was a religious time, and the message is overt. Parents who prefer their kids’ read material to have more subtle (or no) religious messages might want to consider this.
Heidi is a classic for a reason. More than a century later, kids can still relate to the loving little girl immortalized by Shirley Temple.