Book Author: Johanna Spyri
Book Series: N/A
Genre: Children’s’ Fiction, disabled lit.
First Published: 1881
Welcome to another edition of Berg’s Book Club where you can get all your book review needs. This week, it is Heidi by Johanna Spyri. A Victorian
classic about a girl who lives in the alps and makes friends with a disabled girl. Like many victorian literature with disabled characters, this book contains unbelievable miracles. However, appreciating it is a book of it’s time, there are some comic scenes in the book that makes it enjoyable to read.
Edit: This was one of my first book reviews for Berg’s Book Club back when it … well, when the club had no name. Since then, I have done an amazing module in Creative Writing: Writing and Responsibility.
So… I’ve come back to this review to give it an update on what I have learned—and to follow the style of my more up-to-date reviews.
I’ve developed a sort of distaste to Victorian literature—or to be exact, their views on disability. For one of my coursework pieces, we were looking into the responsibility of the writer.
This could mean anything from their responsibility to accurately represent a minority, such as a disability, to their responsibility in grammar, in genre, in authenticity. I chose disability.
However, I don’t hate the victorian disabled lit genre in the same way that I do modern literature with those same values. Different time periods. We know better, right? right?
No discrimination going around in the world that will make life difficult for disabled people, right?
So… due to the age of Heidi, I have decided to forgive it for the values of the time it was written. But that doesn’t mean I need to like the book.
Orphaned Heidi lives with her gruff but caring grandfather on the side of Swiss mountain, where she befriends young Peter the goat-herd. She leads an idyllic life, until she is forced to leave the mountain she has always known to go and live with a sickly girl in the city. Will Heidi ever see her grandfather again? A classic tale of a young girl’s coming-of-age, of friendship, and familial love. (Goodreads.com)
The plot was alright. It starts with an orphaned girl who is constantly passed around from home to home.
At the age of five, Heidi is taken up to the mountain by her Aunt Dete who looked after her for a number of years after the death of Heidi’s parents. Dete gives Heidi to Heidi’s grandfather, not being able to look after Heidi because of a job opportunity in Frankfurt. She stays with her grandfather for another three years where she befriends a boy, Peter, and his blind grandmother. She even encourages her grandfather to socialise.
Then the aunt returns to take her away. Heidi is told she must go and live with another family, the Sesemanns, in the city because a poor invalid is looking for a friend. The rest of the story follows her friendship with Clara, her lessons and her homesickness.
I listened to this book on audible. Something I often do when I don’t have time to read. I found there were many boring passages but there were many that also made me laugh. An example of this is when Heide brings homes kittens, unaware of Mrs Rottenmeier’s dislike of all and any animal. The reaction of Mrs Rottenmeier was brought to life through the narrator’s voice and I couldn’t help but laugh.
One thing Spyri is good at is parallels. Heidi is fond of her grandfather, Peter’s grandmother and Clara’s grandmother. In fact, Clara’s grandmother’s character is similar to Peter’s, which helps Heidi settle into the house more.
However, Heidi is unable to learn her lessons when Mrs Rottenmeier and Clara’s teacher is unable to teach her. When Clara’s grandmother pays a visit, she comes with more patience, kindness and wisdom to start Heidi on her path to learning. This creates conflict as Mrs Rottenmeirer and the teacher was planning on being able to get rid of Heidi or not teach her and because of Clara’s grandmother’s fondness for Heidi and her help in Heidi’s education, they ended up stuck with her for a little longer. Especially as Heidi had the support of Clara’s father too.
There are other parallels. Peter, who is not willing to learn and take every opportunity, but has had the chance to and Clara who is home-schooled and expected to become a Lady despite her condition but is unable to take many opportunities. So when Clara visits the mountings and Heidi is spending time with her, there is a lot of conflict between Peter and Clara.
These parallels and conflicts really add to the story.
Another great parallel throughout the story is the city life verse the suburbs and nature. Clara is born disabled. Heidi becomes ill while in the city. The doctor, Doctor Classen, becomes ill. Clara’s condition worsens. The cure? The Swiss Mountains where Heidi grew up. Everyone becomes better.
This is the bit that I struggle with. Because I literally mean, everyone gets better. Clara is no longer bound into a wheelchair at the end.
the stereotypical way in which disabled characters are portrayed; a tired plot structure in which they die or get cured at the end – (Dunn, 2014, p. 2)
However, this is what was done in the Victorian era, when disability was still seen as the work of the devil. So, I am able to forgive Spryi for her lack of understanding and unawareness.
Heidi is like any other eight-year-old child. Looking to have some fun. She grew accustomed to her life in the mountain, wishing to return despite the financial difference in life. She didn’t really care if she had nice clothes, nice food and toys to play with, all she wanted was her grandfather.
However, the one thing Heidi tried to take with her was the soft rolls for Peter’s grandmother in the hope that it would give her back her sight. Showing Heidi’s naïvety on difference and disabilities. Although, apparently, not that naïve.
Heidi’s growth is the ability to adapt but also to never change her string values and belief of family and friendship.
On the other hand, she also influences the other characters to grow. This is because of her desire to be close to nature and her experience on the mountain. Her friends in the city learn how much the fresh air and change of scenery can benefit their health and appetite.
Grandfather is around 70 years old and ran to the mountains after the loss of his two sons and all his property bar 2 goats. Until Heidi’s entrance in his life, he lived in solitary with his grief and shame.
Heidi encourages her grandfather to make friends with Peter’s grandmother by getting him to do some work on her house which is starting to fall into ruin. When Aunt Dete comes to collect her, he does not want her to go and is happy to see her when she comes back.
Peter’s Grandmother is blind, losing her sight from old age. She uses this to her advantage by getting her grandson to read to her on a daily basis. Encouraging him to learn.
She also teaches Heidi about difference and makes her aware of the life of the poor and the rich. At the end of the book, she is not cured and is probably the only character that has stayed the same. Which, in truth, I am happy about.
Peter is 11 years old and seems to have a crush on Heidi. The pair are best friends but when Clara and Doctor Classen come into Heidi’s life, Peter struggles to come to terms that a person can have more than one friend. This makes him jealous and he acts out because of this, breaking Clara’s chair and is ultimately the reason Clara is forced to learn how to walk again.
However, he does grow a conscience and becomes aware of his flaws. Once he does, he asks his grandmother for advice on how to make amends, sending a positive message to the boys who would have read the book when it was first written.
Clara is the complete opposite of Heidi; taught to be a lady, has had an education and an upper-class upbringing. But this does not stop the two from making friends. In fact, I think it is one of the reasons their friendship became so strong. The girls became inseparable.
Clara began teaching Heidi how to be a lady whole Heidi taught Clara about the Swiss Mountains and the life of people who were less well-off—financially.
Clara’s change is a big one and one I disapprove of. She becomes able-bodied from spending time in the fresh air.
Clara’s Grandmother is similar to Peter’s but she has full sight. She gives advice to Heidi and teaches her how to read, write and count.
Mrs Rottenmieir is strict – if you have seen Maggie Smith play the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, in The Secret Garden or play Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, then you know what kind of strictness I mean.
Mrs Rottenmieir does not like Heidi because of her unruliness and lower-class background. Heidi was also slow at understanding what she was being taught. She tries to make Heidi’s stay uncomfortable but does not expect the Kittens Heidi has been hiding and screams in utter terror.
I know it’s an old book which means the view of disability in Spyri’s time is vastly different from now. Not only that, the time period was much more religious but at the same time saw an increase in science—a threat. Spryi seems to suggest that fresh, clean air found outside the cities can cure disability but surely they knew in their time that wasn’t the case? People didn’t just get up and walk one day.
It sends out the wrong message that disabled people are lazy, but I know loads of disabled people who hate to let their disability win by stopping them from doing something they enjoy. As this is classed as a children’s book, it suggests that disability is a choice or something that can be healed and enforces a stereotype disabled people are trying to fight— that we are scroungers who don’t really need help. It also suggests your disability is something to be ashamed of.
Young readers are easily influenced and if a young disabled child reads this book, they may believe that they could get better if they didn’t use their aid. Able-bodied children may believe that their friend or classmate may get better if they took away the aid like Peter did.
I suggest if you give this book to a child, explain that the world does not work this way but the people in the 1800s wished it did. It could be a good way to introduce them to disability. I would use another book like Katy by Jacqueline Wilson to show them how views have changed and that people cannot just be or need to be ‘healed’.
On the other hand, I found the story was ok until the ending.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed the post.
Dunn, A. 2014. Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature. Peter Lang: New York.
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