Wednesday, September 7, 2011

books about orphans

A few weeks ago, the day that Joe and I went out on that early-early morning hike to Tennessee Valley, we came across a garage sale close to our house, featuring my most favorite thing: kids selling off their books.  Now, this is only my favorite thing because it means I can benefit, but there's a part of me (a big part) that truly doesn't understand the selling of books, the kicking them out of your house.  Unless they're rotten.  I still always feels bad about it, like how I still feel a little guilty about stuffing Charles Bukowski down the garbage chute in my parents' kitchen in Paris.  Or freecycling last year's Booker Prize winner.  Rubbish: get out of here.  Only if I can't read you, do I want you out of here...

I'd been thinking about re-reading Heidi by Johanna Spyri for a long time, in this year that I seem to be going backwards and forwards in my reading, revisiting old favorites and making new ones.  But every edition I saw in bookstores was just so ugly, I couldn't manage to trade the coins for the pages.

And here, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but this sweet Junior Deluxe Edition of Heidi and a companion volume of Black Beauty, published in 1954. Sweeeet.  I'm crazy about those goats with the little hearts above them on the cover -- so cute.

Heidi is a book I adored as a child, along with The Little Princess, both stories that were made, no surprise, into films starring Shirley Temple, both stories about orphans.  I read these books over and over again.  Heidi held particular appeal, since it takes place in the Alps and I could easily transpose her glee at standing in an Alpine meadow onto my own joy at being in the Pyrenees, in our ancestral place, breathing the mountain air, eating well. 
Never had the child been so happy in all her life.  She drank in the golden sunlight, the fresh air, the sweet perfume of the flowers and longed for nothing but to stay where she was for ever.  
There was something so appealing to me about orphan status.  It's not that I wanted my parents dead, but I longed for the freedom to make my own way, which is, I suppose, the great appeal of the orphan motif in children's stories.  No one to protect you (or boss you), so you get to be you, figure stuff out, be the hero or heroine of your own tale.  I know I wasn't alone, since most of our childhood neighborhood games originated in the orphanage, all of us escaping from Ms. Minchin (probably the influence of watching A Little Princess every time it aired on Channel 44), surviving by our own wits, organizing ourselves into a little, fair utopia.

Heidi is a remarkably religious book, which is something I didn't remember from my childhood readings.  But the big deal is Heidi herself, who's so remarkably sweet and loving, absolutely free of artifice, scampering like a goat and smelling the flowers.  It made me long, again, for a simple life, a bed in a hay loft with a view of the stars, days spent roaming the meadows, naming the flowers and rambling with the herd.  

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