What Would Heidi Do?
JoAnne Lehman

I was seven years old when I first used literary allusion in my writing.

I was an early reader, taught at the age of four by my brother John—a precocious six-year-old who also showed me how to tie my shoes. Before that, our parents read aloud to us, and even after we could devour books on our own we still loved listening to them. Usually our mother read to us from the overstuffed, slip-covered chair in the cozy corner by the stairs. Picture books gave way to chapter books, and Mom worked her way through the row of identically bound Children’s Classics on the top shelf of our living-room bookcase. The John C. Winston Company published that edition of the series in 1924, but my parents must have bought their set in the 1950s—maybe from the same traveling salesman who sold them the multi-volume World Book Encyclopedia, which filled the lowest shelves. John favored Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Black Beauty aroused in me that universal young-girl passion for horses, of course. But it was Heidi that most captivated me.


As Heidi, the cheerful nineteenth-century Swiss orphan, frolicked with mountain goats and charmed her gruff old grandfather, I felt in my own body her delight in the clear alpine air, the fresh goat’s milk, the rough country bread. When I was seven I would retreat after school to that corner chair to read and reread the story for myself. I would stop, just before Heidi and Peter bit into their lunch up in the mountains, and go to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of milk and grab some cheese and bread to bring back to the living room. Even if I suspected that homogenized, pasteurized cow’s milk, store-bought white bread, and Velveeta slices on a plastic plate were not quite what they were dining on in the mountain meadow, I was there with them.

For those who didn’t cut their literary teeth on this classic, here’s the gist: An orphaned child is dumped by her aunt at the home of her bitter and lonely—but decent—grandfather, a mountain goat farmer. Heidi loves the adventure of it, from sleeping on a mattress made of hay to helping Peter, a young goatherd, tend flocks in the Alpine meadows. Heidi softens the hearts of not only her grandfather and Peter but also the boy’s widowed mother and blind grandmother. Soon, though, Heidi’s aunt retrieves her and takes her to faraway Frankfurt to be the companion of a sick child, Clara. The grandfather becomes bitter again. Heidi is deposited in an enormous home ruled by Miss Rottenmeier, a cruel housekeeper/governess. The widowed homeowner, Clara’s father, is usually away. Rottenmeier resents Heidi, but Heidi and Clara get along well. Clara’s kind grandmother visits, and teaches Heidi to read and pray. But Heidi is so homesick she becomes ill. The family doctor prescribes her return to the mountains, where all sorts of things are put right: Heidi teaches Peter to read; Grandfather’s heart melts again and he rejoins the village community he had previously shunned; Clara visits Heidi in the mountain paradise and regains her health.

Even as a young child I felt Heidi’s terror as she was abruptly bundled off to Frankfurt. I felt her curiosity and fleeting happiness as she bonded with Clara, her gratitude and adoration for Clara’s kind grandmother, and her relief when Sebastian, the amused coachman, rescued her from some of her missteps. I understood her inner conflict: of course she became devoted to Clara and loved Clara’s grandmother, but who wouldn’t yearn to return to their own true home?

And then there was Miss Rottenmeier, who was indeed rotten. I shrank in fear as I read Heidi’s interactions with her. Heidi’s closest scrape with Rottenmeier occurs on her first day at the house. Heidi learns, to her horror, that she cannot see her beloved mountains and sky, even when she runs into the street. So she persuades a street urchin to escort her to the highest place he knows, a church tower, and there, alas, she sees only more of the grey cityscape. But wait—the tower keeper has a cat with a litter of kittens! He gives her two to take home in her pockets and offers to send along the rest. Heidi knows Clara will love the kittens. But by the time Heidi returns to the house, she is late for dinner and assumed to have run away. Sebastian tries to mediate: “Make haste, little miss…They are already at table. Miss Rottenmeier looks like a loaded cannon.”

Things get worse with Rottenmeier’s cold reprimand to Heidi, and the meowed response. Rottenmeier is so terrified of the “horrid little things” in Heidi’s pockets that her “cannon” does fire. The woman pronounces dire punishments upon Heidi and provokes the poor girl to want to run away for real. But Heidi doesn’t get to go home, not yet, and as far as she can tell she will live in this bleak and lonely exile forever.

Johanna Spyri wrote Heidi in German, of course, and although it was first published in 1880, translations, reprints, movies, and spinoffs appeared in subsequent decades. Many of my female peers grew up with this story. Curiously, my family’s 1924 Winston edition doesn’t list a translator, although it credits the preface writer, a Pennsylvania librarian named Adeline B. Zachert, who stresses the serious duty of teachers, librarians, and “thoughtful parents”—who “have the responsibility of safeguarding the mental and moral life of children”—to make sure said children are supplied with “the right book at the right time.” Zachert gives Heidi “high rank” by that standard.

Heidi was certainly the right book at the right time for me, packed with wholesome material for my mental and moral life. After all, she is truly a good girl, no matter what cruel Rottenmeier thinks (and even she eventually comes around). The story brims with the same values and virtues that were handed down to me in my Swiss Mennonite lineage and conservative Baptist upbringing, and it’s about the most wholesome reading my thoughtful parents could have hoped to find for us without resorting to explicitly sectarian literature. We had the sectarian kind too, with its specific guidance on how to become a true Christian and escape the fires of hell. But those stories built around dogma were flat and unmemorable, and my parents, God bless them, recognized literary quality when it came to our bedtime reading.

Some readers find Heidi saccharine, at least in hindsight. Writer Nancy McCabe references the story in her literary memoir, From Little Houses to Little Women, reflecting that this childhood favorite of hers “sometimes instilled and reinforced in me narrow religious beliefs and traditional ideas of female virtue.” As an adult, she is “surprised to find [it] so didactic”:

The title character is always, to use anachronistic twentieth-century lingo, “witnessing” to others. Suddenly, I understood better a childhood self who memorized Bible verses, earnestly sought to be Christlike, and comforted myself in my diary by writing about the hellfire that my enemies would someday face. (28)

Like McCabe, I memorized Bible verses, sought to be like Christ, and loved Heidi. Like McCabe, I can recognize some of the cloying sweetness when I reread passages of the novel today. But there was something else in that book for me—possibilities more freeing than I could glean from Baptist Sunday School and sermons and altar calls. Heidi didn’t so much reflect my childhood Christian self as expand it. What made Heidi so liberating for me was that the moral of the story wasn’t pounded home with explicit interpretation, either by the author or by my devout parents. When Peter destroyed Clara’s wheelchair, Spryi didn’t write, “And so Peter then realized that, just as he deserved a beating for ruining the wheelchair but Grandmother stepped in to save him, so he deserved to go to hell for being a sinner, but Jesus died on the cross to save his soul.” Nor did my parents turn that story into anything more than it was—although they could have, and no doubt some parents did. It was a huge—and welcome—distinction for seven-year-old me to experience a piece of literature that illustrated desirable character traits and pointed to divine goodness and intervention, but did not bear down with literalized dogma.

No wonder I wanted to live Heidi’s life. Heidi might tell someone to pray and trust God, but that wouldn’t be witnessing as I understood the concept, meaning knocking on people’s doors to tell them God would send them to hell if they didn’t have exactly the right beliefs or become correctly, perfectly “born again.”

That wasn’t all, though. Heidi was good, as I was, but she had courage and boldness that I lacked. She ran out into the city streets, talked to strangers, and came home with kittens! I would not have dared that, no matter how much I missed the mountains and the goats. I was shy and fearful. I did what teachers and other authorities told me to do. I feared “getting in trouble” more than anything. Heidi modeled something different by taking initiative, by speaking up, by sometimes insisting on doing things her way—yet still being good and having the life and the relationships she loved restored to her, and then some.

Of course I couldn’t articulate any of that at age seven, when I was in Mrs. Gilson’s second-grade class. And I wasn’t consciously thinking of Heidi on the day I brought to school my little box of screws and springs and keys and marbles that I had found in our attic. After I had finished all the work assigned to the top reading group (early, as always), I proceeded to entertain myself by taking the box out and handling the tiny treasures. When some of my friends got distracted from their work as they saw what I was doing, Mrs. Gilson told me to put all of it away and do extra work—the lower reading group’s work—to fill the time.

I wasn’t thinking of Heidi, but I was bothered. Something about the situation reminded me of a feeling in the story where there was tension, anger, and unjustified blame.

I did the lower reading group’s assignment in record time, and my printing on the lined page was neat as ever, my answers correct, my spelling perfect. But at the very bottom of the paper, under the last line, in tiny letters and faint pencil—so faint that maybe she wouldn’t even see it?—I wrote a note to my teacher, who now personified the meanest character in my favorite book. “Don’t load your cannons, Mrs. Gilson. You’re too much for me.” I put the paper in the tray on her desk.

She did see it—was I surprised?—and summoned me to her desk for a private chat. I trembled. I looked at the floor. I could barely speak. “Did you write this?” she asked. I could only with effort nod my head half an inch. “What does it mean?” I managed a shrug. “Are you angry with me?” I couldn’t move. “Is this because I made you do more work?” The tiniest nod again. “Would you rather be lazy?” That wasn’t at all what I meant, but it seemed to be the only choice, so I nodded another half-inch. Mrs. Gilson sighed, sent me back to my seat, and never mentioned it again. How could I tell her I just wanted her approval and her understanding—that I wanted her to prove she was not Miss Rottenmeier?

Mrs. Gilson didn’t yell or send me to the principal’s office—or even, like a cruel governess, threaten to lock me in a dark cellar with rats. I never again disrupted her class with my treasure box, nor did I suffer the humiliation and outrage of being assigned work beneath me. Perhaps she found extra challenges for me that I wouldn’t perceive as punishments. I came to adore her, and she seemed to understand me. She wasn’t Miss Rottenmeier after all.

I wonder if she had any idea where the cannon allusion came from. She might not have, even though she was no doubt familiar with the children’s classic. It was an obscure reference, based on something Sebastian said just once, on page eighty-nine. “Loaded cannon” was an image that stuck with me, but it might not have with others. I’ve never used it since and I probably never will.

Mrs. Gilson never told my parents, or not that I ever knew. But I can imagine her at home that evening, maybe drinking a glass of wine with her husband, showing him the curious note from her shyest, best, most well-behaved student, both of them shaking their heads and chuckling.


JoAnne Lehman lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works as an editor at the University of Wisconsin.

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