Literature is read and loved because it has that beautiful way of shining light on the mysterious ways of our being. It helps us to become reflective and thoughtful people as we glimpse the varied trials of humanity. These trials elicit from us compassion, sorrow, gratitude, admiration, and perhaps most importantly a sense of kinship. I start with these few comments on the general nature of literature because I find I cannot take for granted that people hold this understanding in common. There is, at times, a dismissal of literature (it is just entertainment), a suspicion of literature (it is imaginative and therefore false), and a refusal of literature (it is just never picked up). But our stories, which is what the best of literature is, tells us who we have been, who we are, and who we can be for better or for ill. These stories encourage us, comfort us, and warn us. Often they are the same story told over and over again. Indeed, it has been said that there really is only one story and that is the story of our life in relation to God.
In Heidi, Johanna Spyri tells this story in repeating harmonic patterns. The story of the prodigal son has a simple story arc. The son lives in a loving home he does not appreciate. He leaves and squanders the riches he received from that home. He repents, returns, and is lovingly welcomed home. This story arc is Grandfather’s story arc and Peter’s story arc and Heidi’s story arc. There is something of a bittersweetness to Heidi’s story arc, however, for while Grandfather found himself in isolation after wasting his inheritance, and Peter found himself in a guilt-ridden isolation after destroying an invalid’s chair, Heidi did not choose to be separated from her family. She was surreptitiously taken from her home and put in a new home which was also a good and loving home but a pale shadow of the one she had before. Heidi is a good child with a richness of virtues inscribed on her heart and manifested in her behaviors, and yet she still suffers the trials of a prodigal. Her sin is not so much turning from God, but perhaps one of not drawing close enough to him. This is a subtle reflection of the spiritual heart that belies the thought that the story of Heidi is of a light and saccharine nature. Rather than being a passing entertainment, Heidi is, in the end, one of the loveliest works of Ageless Children’s Literature.
The Natural Child
Open a beautifully bound copy of Heidi with thick creamy pages while you rest on the lawn or in your favorite reading nook, and begin reading. You will be taken into an Edenic world where a very natural child lives. As Heidi is being led up the mountain by her cunning Aunt Dete to be left with her Grandfather, we quickly learn what an innocent and attractive child Heidi is. Heidi trudges up the mountain wearing her whole wardrobe and instinctively seems to know that as she ascends the mountain she needs to present herself as she was created. She begins stripping her clothes and declares she wants to be like the skinny-legged goats frolicking in the mountain meadows. Grandfather knows, however, that she is a child and not an animal, and he bids her to keep her clothes. And Heidi, the child of natural virtue, obeys. Heidi always obeys. In this story, obedience is good and beautiful, and yet it is part of what will lead Heidi on the sorrowful path that every human is destined to follow. For Heidi, the natural and guileless child who loves those around her as well as God’s good creation, still is not who she is called to be. She, like everyone, must be transfigured by suffering.
The Suffering Child
If the natural child Heidi is symbolized by the goats frolicking in the mountain meadows, the suffering Heidi is symbolized by her sleepwalking-self who terrorizes the household like a supernatural specter longing for another world. It is Heidi’s love which brings on her suffering, love for those she is with and for those she is not with. Led deceptively to Frankfurt, it is some time before she realizes that her separation from her mountain home is not to be short lived. Yet Heidi is always open to those around her and has no bitterness toward them. She does not lash out at them for taking her or for keeping her. In simplicity, she loves them to the degree to which they love her. Yet her ache for her mountain home is intense and unconquerable. It is in the midst of this trial far from the mountain top that Heidi is taught to pray by Clara’s grandmother. And she does pray with fervor. Yet as her trial continues, she loses that fervor and stops praying. It is here that Heidi, like the prodigal son impatient for his reward, turns from God. In time, Clara’s grandmother counsels Heidi on patience in prayer, and Heidi, grieved the she has turned her back on God, cries out repentantly, “I will go at once and ask God to forgive me, and I will never forget Him again.” But it is in obedience to Frau Rottenmeir and in a true gratitude to Clara’ s family for their kindness that Heidi does not reveal to anyone other than God the cause of her agony. Her trial continues seemingly without help from any quarter other than her own inner strength. Truly, all that sustains this beautifully simple child is her thought that she can save bread from each meal to someday bring home to Peter’s grandmother. Unable to continue living in this repressed state, her suffering is eventually manifested in failing health and sleep disturbances which reach a crescendo pitch. The doctor arrives, rapidly sees the truth, and comes to Heidi’s rescue. But in all that time of suffering, God has also been ladening Heidi with riches she is now prepared to take back to the mountain.
The Perfected Child
To the delight of all who fell in love with the natural Heidi, the Heidi who returns to the mountain is still the child shedding clothes. This time however it is not because she wishes to be like the goats. This time it is because she will not appear before her grandfather wearing a showy hat so similar to her sly aunt’s and a hat she knows Grandfather associated with her aunt’s behavior. She would show her grandfather that she is still the Heidi he loves. Yet that same innocent child is now also clothed in wisdom and riches, riches formed in her trial of suffering. She is well aware of her transformation as she tells Grandfather:
God certainly knows of some happiness for us which He is going to bring out of the trouble, only we must have patience and not run away. And then all at once something happens and we see clearly ourselves that God has had some good thought in His mind all along; but because we cannot see things beforehand, and only know how dreadfully miserable we are, we think it is always going to be so.
Heidi able to see the good that God has prepared within her gives generously dispensing her spiritual and material riches to all those around her. Heidi brings her grandfather back to God, she accompanies and comforts the doctor through his mourning for his daughter, and she devotes herself to helping heal Clara. She has the gift of reading which she now gives to Peter. She has friends who can help assist her in caring for Peter’s grandmother and she has friends who will see to her needs when Grandfather no longer can. They are the friends gathered in the days of her suffering. Heidi, the natural child, who had no knowledge of how to speak of God before she descended his mountain now does. And yet she has not lost the wonder and beauty of the natural Heidi. She is more fully that child. She is a child perfected in the love of God.
“From the old and pleasantly situated village of Mayenfeld, a footpath winds through green and shady meadows to the foot of the mountains.” So opens the 1910 translation of Heidi by Marian Edwardes. It is a good translation, for the line tells us that the footpath winds through green and shady meadows. That is indeed the path that Heidi travels. For her life is not a saccharine story in which an ever-effervescent child cheers up the world. Heidi is much more. While Heidi is an innocent soul without guile and with sensitivities finely tuned to the beauty of the world and the needs of those she loves, Heidi is also a soul who knows both the green and the shade of the meadows, that is the joys and sorrows of the the heart. Heidi’s prodigal journey is a softened one, in that her heart was never tried by greed, pride, envy, or a hardness of heart. Her trial was a loving heart torn in many directions giving rise to a squall of impatience with the good God; a tender trial for a tender heart.
©2023 Joann Luke