Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month – Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi”

BLOG #31, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #32
JOHANNA SPYRI’S HEIDI
July 30, 2014

I’ve thought long and hard about the book you’ll be reading in August. In the calendar of the year, August is one of those rare in-between months, a time to veg out, get away, go to the beach or mountains, take a cruise, regenerate–for September, life-gets-back-to-normal–
September looms up at the end of August. But, please, we grouse, not yet, not yet.

Undoubtedly, you’ve noticed by how that my Book of the Month selections don’t fit into any book club mold you’ve ever encountered anywhere else. Much more eclectic, for starters. And less academic than you’d expect from a college English professor. In truth, it has taken me this long to arrive at a clear picture of what the Series template is likely to be. I can now tell you how I perceive it: It is neither more nor less than a library of much-loved books that, had you read no more than those chosen you’d still feel your life had been enriched in ways past quantifying. For they are–most of them–books you’ll want to return to again and again. Some, just to have read them once will be enough. Hopefully, you’ll want to keep all the selections together in one part of your library.

But for the August selection, I am returning to one of the most beloved family books of all time. It has been translated into over 50 languages; it has sold over 50,000,000 copies, and has been filmed over a dozen times. As is true with every book children love, adults cherish it every bit as much. Of course, I’m referring to Heidi.

Scan_Pic0106

[Jessie Willcox Smith’s wondrous cover painting for the McKay edition]

It was with some trepidation that I scanned the Spyri section of my library for the Heidi edition I’d re-read before writing this blog. Would it be the Airmont paperback edition or the rare Pocket Book 1940 First printing? The John C. Winston edition, with four lovely Clara M. Burd illustrations in color? Or would it be the 1922 David McKay edition with ten stunning illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith? It was a no-brainer! It is no wonder that the asking price of any magazine cover that features Smith’s inimitable children has reached the stratosphere where dwells the likes of Maxfield Parrish, Rose Cecil O’Neill, Howard Pyle, and Elizabeth Shippen Green. If you can land a fine copy, ignore the price, and grab it before it’s sold to someone else.

Scan_Pic0108

But whatever you do, don’t be satisfied with anything less than the complete unabridged text. In recent years, it has become acceptable in certain circles to strip all positive references to spiritual things from classic books. This is true also of Heidi books. And glaringly, in Heidi movies.

What I discovered in my re-read was that it is a profoundly spiritual book. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Johanna Spyri, neé Hausser (1829-1901), a writer whose story for children, Heidi, is known all over the world. Her psychological insight into the child mind, her humor, and her ability to enter into childish joys and sorrows give her books attraction and lasting value. After her marriage in 1852 to Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer engaged in editorial work, she moved to Zurich. Her love of homeland, feeling for nature, unobtrusive piety, and cheerful wisdom gave both her work and her life their unique quality.”
Scan_Pic0107

Adeline B. Zachert, in her most insightful introduction to the 1927 John C. Winston edition of Heidi, noted that “Character grows from ideals. It is caught by contagion. One may catch it from one’s companions; children often learn of it from the friends who live within the covers of their story books; these characters become the companions of their thoughts. They become real; they live and act in the imagination of children, and often exert a greater influence than do the flesh-and-blood associates with whom they daily come in contact.” Ms. Zachert (then head librarian for the state of Pennsylvania) pointed out that a child’s first response to a book generally depends on its outward appearance (color and texture of the binding, the decoration and imagery on the cover, and especially splendid color depictions of paintings by artists who know how to capture the essence of a character or setting). But after the first impressions, it is the power of the story itself that take it from there.

Other books written by Spyri include Cornelli, Moni the Goat Boy, Children of the Alps, Stories of Swiss Children, Heidi Grows Up (always popuolar), Mazli, Uncle Titus in the Country, Toni the Little Wood-Carver, Heidi’s Children, Erick and Sally, Gritli’s Children, The Story of Rico, Rico and Wiseli, Veronica and Other Friends, and What Sarni Sings with the Birds.

CONCLUSION

So, don’t delay, if there are children in your vicinity, read Heidi out loud to them, or take turns reading it out loud; if there are no children around, read it to yourself. You’ll be surprised at how much you will revel in the story, and the insights you’ll gain from immersing yourself in this timeless book. If you see a film version of the story, only do so after you’ve read the book! Otherwise you deprive yourself and your listeners of the once-in-a-lifetime experience of creating mental images uniquely your own.

 

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

BLOG #49, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
STEVEN SPIELBERG’S LINCOLN
December 5, 2012

Everywhere I go, people, knowing I wrote Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage (Howard/Simon & Schuster, 2008), ask me if I’ve seen the new film. Finally, I’m able to answer film-related questions. Connie and I took our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons to see a Maryland, Sunday matinee. The theater was packed. And, just as was true with our son’s earlier experience in Florida, there was enthusiastic applause at the end.

I’ve been burned so many times by attending so-called biographical films that I was a bit apprehensive about this one; but not too much, for Doris Kearns Goodwin was staking her reputation on the film’s authenticity. And of all the sixty-some Lincoln biographies I studied before writing my own, her Team of Rivals outshown them all. What prodigious scholarship!

In short, Goodwin did not let me down. Neither did Spielberg, Sally Field, Daniel Day Lewis, or the rest of the cast. Spielberg was wise to zero in on such a short time-period that suspense and character-revelation and development was possible. Lewis was magnificent as Lincoln. Somehow, in this film, he became Lincoln. It was almost eerie to me: after a lifetime of studying Lincoln and collecting stories written about Lincoln, Lincoln with all his complexities (so complex that even his closest associates were never able to pigeon-hole him or predict what he might or might not do), I felt that somehow Lewis had managed to get inside his skin. An incredible feat given the fact that there are over 16,000 books about Lincoln to draw from.

Most certainly, Goodwin was the mentor-in-chief who helped create this near miraculous resurrection of abstract history into flesh and blood reality. But mentoring alone is powerless to create living prototypes; it also takes a mentoree with rare gifts of assimilation.

And never was a film such as this one needed more, for, as famed historian and biographer David McCullouch put it, several weeks ago, “America is facing an unprecedented crisis of historical literacy.” Neither our schools nor our homes are passing on to children, youth, and young adults an even elementary understanding and knowledge of our past. And given that books, newspapers, and magazines are being beaten back, back, and back by electronic sound bytes, democracy itself is at risk.

Sally Field excelled in her portrayal of the tormented Mary Todd Lincoln, who had lost two of her sons to disease. Antibiotics were unknown back then and doctors and midwives, with unwashed hands, carried death from one patient to the next. Had it not been for her husband, she would have completely crumbled against the forces determined to bring her down. When she lost him too, it is little wonder that she all but broke.

To us today, who have just endured a brutal no-hands-barred election campaign decided by incredibly vicious attack ads created for and by anonymous sources accountable to no one, we certainly cannot claim clean hands. Lincoln had made a solemn vow to God that he would do his utmost to remove the quarter-millennium-old curse of slavery. A superb tactician, he accomplished what no other known man could have: winning the war in spite of 750,000 casualties [the latest figure]) when so many were willing to settle at any price, and then, by marshaling so completely the war-time powers of the Presidency, along with being a shrewd judge of human nature, almost unbelievably, orchestrating the passing of the Sixteenth Amendment.

Not surprisingly, given today’s secularism, Lincoln’s deep relationship with God was shortchanged in the film. Without doubt, he was America’s most spiritual president, who was convicted that, behind the scenes, God called the shots. He could only do his utmost, then leave the rest to God. Scholars today appear to share an agenda that calls for stripping from Lincoln the spirituality that made him what he was, and give him the strength to stand–alone–against forces that would have brought down a hundred lesser men. His clear-eyed vision, coupled with moment-by-moment dependency on God, carried him on to Ford’s Theatre, the safe harbor reached at last. Wisely, Spielberg concludes the film with the high tide of passing the Sixteenth Amendment rather than the assassin’s bullet that, ironically, insured Lincoln’s immortality, saving him from the horrors of Deconstruction that followed.

In spite of its flaws, which are amazingly few, the film ends up about as historically accurate as any such film I’ve ever seen—an amazing feat!