When I was a kid, I loved Pippi Longstocking. I remember her being a bit eccentric and unconventional, but what I loved most about her was that she had red hair like me. I had no idea that these books were thirty years old when I was reading them, or that they were written by a Swedish woman, Astrid Lindgren, who was ever bit as unorthodox for her time as the character she created.
Pippi lived all alone, her mother died when she was a baby, and her father, a ship’s captain, was blown into the sea and disappeared. She lived with her monkey and a horse. Her hair was the color of carrot, she had freckles, she wore braids that stuck out from her head, and wore mismatched socks. She did things like walk backwards so she didn’t have to turn around when she got home and lied, saying that’s how people in Egypt walked. She also had superhuman strength and could do things like lift a horse.
I recently watched, Becoming Astrid, which tells the story of Lindgren from the time she’s about 16 to 20, before she wrote the Pippi books. The movie is framed by a much older Lindgren, who lived to be 95 years old, reading comments from children about her writing and what it meant to them.
In the movie we see Lindgren is a bit of Pippi, dancing and telling jokes, cutting her hair short, and overcoming much larger obstacles, such as becoming pregnant to a much older married man.
Was Pippi’s Unusual Nature More Subversive?
Lindgren monitored mail for the Swedish security services, during World War II and read letters from Jewish families that broke her heart. She had a deep anger at Nazi Germany that she documented in her diary.
She described Hitler as as ‘a little, unknown German artisan’ who had become ‘his people’s nemesis and cultural destroyer’.
Later, Pippi takes on a circus strongman named Mighty Adolf, and wins, leaving him humiliated. There are other examples in the Pippi stories where she takes on bullies and thugs and wins.
Lindgren knew that Pippi was not the same as other children’s protagonist’s of the day and in order to get the book pubished did a little bit of spin in her letter to the publisher, saying that children would not identify with her but rather the well-behaved children who live next door, Tommy and Anika.
The books were published for a year before a critic accused them of being amoral, saying, ‘No normal child eats up a whole cake at a coffee party,’ he railed. ‘It is suggestive of a diseased imagination or of compulsive-obsessive behaviour.’
Lindgren explained Pippi this way, ‘Pippi represents my own childish longing to meet a person who has power but does not abuse it.’
After so many years, Pippi and Lindgren remain stars for their conviction and ability to stand out.
This post was previously published on CatherineLanser.com.
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Photo credit: Catherine Lanser