Thursday, March 11, 2010

Songs of Innocence: Part One

Heidi came running in. ‘The sun can’t laugh at me now,’ she said. Her grandfather smilingly agreed. In her desire to please the sun, she had rubbed her face with the hard towel until she looked like a boiled lobster. -Johanna Spyri

In my never-ending individual study of children's literature, I recently read Heidi, another classic that sadly seems to be fading from popularity. As new classics continue to replace the old ones, I fear many such books will be enjoyed by fewer and fewer readers. But I suppose that's progress...and I suppose it's also what keeps me in business, so I won't lament too severely.

One of the things that really struck me about this novel is how authentic the main character feels. Heidi is one those characters that comes alive immediately. She's the kind of character I always strive to create. Another thing that impressed was how, besides the obvious differences that exist between 1880 Alpine life and modern childhood, Heidi could easily step into a contemporary story without missing a beat. That's truly a credit to the author's ability to capture human character.

‘I told you we wanted someone of Miss Clara’s own age, so that they could do lessons together and be real companions. Miss Clara is twelve. How old is this child?’

Detie had expected this question and was prepared with an answer. ‘To tell you the truth, Ma’am,’ she said glibly, ‘I can’t remember just how old she is, but about ten I think.’

‘I’ll soon be eight,’ said Heidi. ‘Grandfather told me so.’

Detie gave her another cross little push, but Heidi was quite unaware of having said anything wrong.

‘Not yet eight!’ exclaimed Miss Rottenmeier. ‘That’s at least four years too young. What’s the good of bringing her here?’ She turned to Heidi and went on, ‘What books have you been using in your lessons?’

‘None,’ said Heidi.

‘What’s that you say? How did you lean to read then?’

‘I haven’t learnt to read,’ Heidi replied. ‘Nor has Peter.’

‘Good gracious me, can’t read at you age!’ cried Miss Rottenmeier in dismay. ‘Impossible! What have you learnt then?’

‘Nothing,’ said Heidi frankly.

Heidi, though eternally a symbol of unselfishness and goodness, isn't as stiff as other such examples in children's literature from the period. She's quirky. Funny. She gets angry and frustrated. In essence, she manages to feel real. While reading the book, even though I have never seen this particular movie, it seemed like a natural that Shirley Temple would go on to play the character. There was something about the character that reminded me of every character Shirley Temple played in her early where innocence is character. (More about that tomorrow in Part 2).

Perhaps it's because we don't see these characters grow-up that they remain endearing to us and why the books are appealing to us as adult readers. We can enjoy Heidi's triumphs because we don't have see the struggles that are sure to come in next chapters of her life. And since we never see her lose the magical qualities with which she looks at life, we never grow cynical toward her outlook and remember that there is something to be said for seeing the world through her eyes.

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