Today we’re sharing a wonderful essay written for us by Laurel Mackie, a creative writer, teacher, museum interpreter and the fascinated mamma of a nearly two year old boy. Laurel revisits a childhood connection with Pippi Longstocking to discover whether she’s a modern day hero she should share with her son.
It’s a risky thing, going back as an adult to a book you treasured as a child. What if something twinkling and subtle has become dull and obvious? What if life has made of us critics instead of connoisseurs? What if memory has improved the raw materials and going back to the original story reveals all its frayed edges and missing buttons?
But sometimes the risk is worth taking. Sometimes a piece of your childhood washes up on the shore of your adult life and you should pick it up. My latest bit of tempting flotsam has come in the form of Pippi Longstocking. I loved her. I really, very, truly loved her. Her spark and her bravado and her sweet-faced defiance made an impression on me as a young child. I have always been much more of an Annika — Pippi’s timid neighbour and friend — but my meek heart felt a bit braver when I read about this Swedish child’s joyful freedom.
Pippi, or rather Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking, has come back to me in waves. First, I married a Swede. Then I became mamma to our half-Swedish, half-Canadian son. We were gifted with a gorgeous stuffed Pippi doll, just the right size for dragging by the braids and driving around on the back of a toddler’s jeep. My mother-in-law then gave us her miniature vintage copy of Pippi in the South Seas, in original Swedish. Pippi was on my shore and it was time to pick her up again.
At well past thirty years of age, I have just re-read Pippi Goes on Board. I was actually nervous when I borrowed it from the library (in English), wondering if I was about to find new flaws in an old friend. I really wanted to find that I still loved Pippi, that she would still be a hero I would want my son to grow up with.
So, is she? Well, let’s take a good look.
Pippi Goes on Board starts with a creepy scene where an imagined “stranger” stands at the gates of Pippi’s house, Villa Villekula, watching her “sauntering around by herself in the twilight.” Now, my motherly antennae were twitching as I read this and they absolutely quivered as Pippi — who lives alone — comes out to chat with the stranger. Is this a model for children? A girl who speaks with the stranger at the gate? And yet, I want my son to be unafraid of the world. I want him to trust his belly about who to speak to and who to avoid. Rightly or not, Pippi trusts her belly.
She’s not the most well-kept child. This is because the poor girl keeps herself. Her father is either irresponsibly absent or, and this is Pippi’s favourite explanation, romantically yet terrifyingly captured by island cannibals and forced to live as their king. Pippi is, plainly speaking, scruffy. She lives in a cluttered house with a monkey and an indoor horse. She eats old cheese that she finds in a hatbox and keeps more dirty nicknacks in the bread box than she keeps bread. Are these the housekeeping habits of a hero? Well, actually, maybe they are if you consider that she is a parentless child who manages to run a house at all. Pippi may be a bit of a mess but she gets by and has great coping skills.
But she lies! Pippi is fond of illustrating her loudly-voiced opinions with embellished memories of far-flung towns she has visited where people have three arms or have eyes as red as “stop signs.” As often as not, she finishes her stories by remembering that, in fact, the townsfolk had two arms and ordinary eyes… except for when she backtracks still further and begins to explain that the townsfolk had “fewer arms” than most ordinary people, some of them living with no arms at all. Should our children admire a liar? Well, she is a fictional liar and fiction is nothing but wonderful lies so… yes, why not? Pippi is proud of her ability to “lie” a “long story.” If my son becomes half the liar she is I’ll be proud of him too.
But what of her bad habits? When she is semi-shipwrecked with her friends she gets Tommy to write a letter in a bottle proclaiming that they have been “on this island for two days without snuff.” Snuff, a dry tobacco powder for snorting, and the more traditional Swedish snus, a (disgusting!) moist tobacco that is pressed between gum and lip, are not on the list of habits I hope my eventual ten year old picks up. So there’s a small mark against Pippi as absolute hero. But she never actually takes snuff in the novels. And do we want perfectly sanitized heroes anyway?
Pippi can’t write the letter in the bottle because she is school-shy and not very literate. In a bit of pre-cell-phone-text speak Pippi writes:
I SIRTINLEE HOPE U R NOT SIK.
IT WOOD BE 2 BAD 4 U 2 BE SIK.
MYSELF I AM JUST FIN.
By ten years of age, I hope my own son will be up to his armpits in books he is reading and stories he has written himself. But Pippi wouldn’t be Pippi if she spent her days in school. That wood mayk hr 2 dul and ordinree. So I guess we’ll take her as the academic shirker she is.
So, does all that make her a hero today? Let’s look again.
Pippi knows herself. She responds to a pharmacist’s advertisement for a medicine to help those who “suffer from freckles” by announcing that she herself does not suffer from her freckles at all. That kind of self-assuredness is surely the mark of a hero.
Pippi is strong and Pippi’s heart is big. She can lift her own horse and carry him home when he gets tired. In an even more touching scene in Pippi Goes on Board, she carries home to his barn the over-whipped, over-worked horse of a salesman. (Interestingly, when Lindgren was asked by French translators to change Pippi’s horse into a more believably liftable pony she did agree but also asked them to “send her a photo of a French girl lifting a pony.” *)
Lindgren’s simple, colourful crayon box world — red hair, brown and black stockings, blue sea, gold coins — is just the place I’d love my son to know. Reading through adult eyes I am still entranced by Lindgren’s vivid descriptions of forests, houses, faces and nature. They are written in plain, clean language that doesn’t clutter or cloy.
Pippi is just the fictional friend I want my son to look up to and learn from. She has a treasure chest in her house from which her friends Tommy and Annika often receive “a little present,” yet “still the drawers [are] never empty.” It has been such a relief for me to find that this magical fullness is true of the Pippi novels as well.
For all her scruffiness, her suspected snuff habit, her tendency to talk to strangers and her illiteracy, I believe that Pippi deserves our children’s affection and respect. In fact, I think that they — like us — may like her because she isn’t too scrubbed-up. A little horseplay mixed well with spit and grit foils nicely in Lindgren’s safe, pretty and simply drawn world.
Is Pippi a worthy hero for my son? I really, very, truly believe she is.
All hail Pippi!
*from Beyond Babar: The European Tradition in Children’s Literature: edited by Sandra L. Becket, Maria Nikolajeva
All other quotations from Pippi Goes on Board by Astrid Lindgren, 1957, translated by Florence Lamborn, Viking Press, New York
All images from Drawn & Quarterly’s beautiful Pippi reissues