I loved this book as a child. I never owned it, but have fond memories of trips to the library with my mom, encountering Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book and its sequels (Pippi Goes on Board and Pippi in the South Seas) for the first time. As part of my current quest to discover and re-visit classics of children’s literature, I checked all three out from the library to see how they measured up to some of the other lovelies I’ve read recently (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Daddy Long-Legs, and more). Alas, it turns out that not all children’s books age with you terribly well. I was terribly disappointed, and I plan to return the set of three without re-reading the sequels.
Though not everyone has read the books (translated from Swedish), the image of Pippi Longstocking is a famous one, with her carrot-colored hair in two tight braids sticking straight out from her head. She lives alone in an old house, called Ville Villekulla, because her mother is dead and her father, a sea captain, disappeared in a storm. By alone, I mean without human companionship – Pippi shares her house with a horse (unnamed) and a monkey (Mr. Nilsson). Pippi is “indeed a remarkable child” (4). She is stronger than a circus strong man, strong-willed, generous with her money and possessions, and fiercely independent. She’s also a compulsive liar and kind of a brat.
Pippi doesn’t know how to behave. It’s understandable, with her lack of parental guidance, but the (mis)adventures I found so funny as a child now read only as irritating and bothersome. I often found myself embarrassed on her behalf. I wasn’t so bothered by antics within her own home – the time Pippi rolled out cookie dough on the floor; the time she dumped a kettle-full of water on the floor and skated around in it; the time she brought the horse (which normally lived outside on the porch) inside for her birthday party. It was her interactions with society outside of her home that bothered me. I realized that this was because Pippi was breaking, often quite flamboyantly and outrageously, the implicit social contract that governs interactions with one’s community.
Take Pippi’s single experience with school. She arrives late, smart-talks the teacher, disrupts the classroom, and distracts the other students. The day doesn’t work out for Pippi, and so that’s the end of her education. She doesn’t return. And the time Pippi goes to the circus? She constantly interrupts the performance, jumping straight into the ring and showing up the performers. When Pippi attends a coffee party at her neighbors’ house, she eats all the food, constantly interrupts the adults’ conversation, and seems unable to recognize hints or instructions as to appropriate behavior. At times, Pippi is irresponsible and dangerous – for example, Pippi fires off pistols in her kitchen, missing her friends and putting holes in the ceiling. She lives in the moment, always seeking entertainment and adventure, with apparent disregard for the safety of those she leads.
Pippi doesn’t know any better, but she also refuses any help in learning how to obey societal expectations. She leads policemen who attempt to put her into a children’s home on a merry chase before sending them away. The book applauds her game of tag, but I was left wishing that Pippi was given some guiding influence, because she certainly doesn’t get any from her friends Tommy and Annika, who serve only as an audience for Pippi’s antics. Pippi lives outside the rules, but she doesn’t seem to learn from her experiences, and I find that to be a really sad model for children.
I haven’t written as much as usual in this review, and I feel kind of bad about that. I will conclude by asking this: What makes a timeless children’s story? For one to age with you, must there be morals and lessons for readers of all ages? Why do some books, like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables remain beloved throughout one’s life, while others, like this one for me, are entertaining in childhood but not beyond?
Things I’m reading:
To Serve Them All My Days, R.F. Delderfield
A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler