Heidi by Johanna Spyri (1880)

I am an advocate of reading local authors while traveling. It brings depth to your understanding of the country’s culture in a way that checking off sights and landmarks doesn’t. Reading Heidi while visiting Switzerland last spring was pretty much everything. Looking up from the page, I saw the exact mountains Spyri was talking about. In that moment it wasn’t literature, it was life.

The story of an adorably sincere little girl grasps a lot of life’s complexity. It shows us the importance of landscape in our conception of home and nurtures an appreciation of nature. It highlights how family and friendship start out as coincidences, while love and generosity string them along. What else does the story tell us? Homesickness can be brutal, dreams are real, redemption and forgiveness are possible, children are hopelessly dependent and vulnerable but most of all resilient. The list goes on.


“Saying good night to the mountains, the sun throws his most beautiful rays to them, that they may not forget him till morning.”

Heidi’s capacity to empathize with suffering is striking for such a young girl. She cried when she found out that Peter’s grandmother was blind and devoted her time to making her feel like she could see. She helped Clara experience more of life and the outdoors despite her being in a wheelchair. Empathy is a quality many adults have a hard time with and it is one of the most important in true human connection. Heidi’s example is inspiring for its focus on positive improvements rather than on the unalterable fact of the suffering itself.

As an expatriate who has experienced homesickness as physical pain and emotional disorientation, I was able to deeply relate to Heidi’s reaction to being taken away from her home.  Heidi’s Dörfli in Switzerland represented nature and family to her and despite the agony of Heimweh (homesickness) she felt while in Frankfurt, her time there provided her with a socialization that only benefited her in the end. Benefits of friendship and literacy she would not have had otherwise and which she was able to pass on to others.

She found enrichment through nature and development through society. This balance of life’s riches is something it takes most people ages to figure out. In Heidi, it all boils down to God, Nature and Loved Ones. Those things are the bulk of life, and you can find them everywhere; one’s blessings are simple and bountiful. Quite the philosophy, that Heidi.


What I underlined:

She can look after herself, though she’s only five. She’s got all her wits about her. She knows how to make the best of things, too (6).

Heidi’s homesickness grew on her from day to day, till just reading the name of some well-loved object was enough to bring tears to her eyes, though she would not let them fall (134).

She sniffed the cool mountain air, so fragrant with the scent of fir trees, and drew in deep, long breaths of it. She felt the warm sunshine on her face and hands. Though she had thought so much about it, she never dreamed that life on the mountain would be like this (252).


Edition: Puffin in Bloom 2014


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