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.

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[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.

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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.”
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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.