Way out at the end of a tiny little town was an old overgrown garden, and in the garden was an old house, and in the house lived Pippi Longstocking. She was nine years old, and she lived there all alone. She had no mother and no father, and that was of course very nice because there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having the most fun, and no one who could make her take cod liver oil when she much preferred caramel candy. (p. 11)When I was nine, I was already a good reader, yet despite going frequently to the local library, I failed to read several well-known children's novels (many of which would today be relabeled as "Young Adult"). Although I have a vague recollection of the elementary school librarian mentioning Swedish author Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, it was more in the line of things that were encouraged to some classmates and not to myself. Perhaps I would have rejected it at that age, due to it being written by a woman and featuring a young girl on it. I like to think not; I did love dearly Beverly Cleary's Ramona novels (or her Ralph S. Mouse stories). Regardless of the reason, I never read Pippi Longstocking as a child. I think that if I had, I would have found it to be a good read. But try as I might, it is almost impossible to divorce the adult reader, with his concerns and world-awareness, from the remnants of the youthful reader who can imagine the mischief that could be achieved with companions and pets.
There is much to like about Pippi Longstocking. Growing up in a teaching household, there were times in which my imagination clashed with the rules and expectations of the house. Don't put your feet on the couch if you are wearing shoes. Talk quietly at the dinner table. "Give sugar" to elderly relatives, even if you hated the thought of kissing wrinkled cheeks heavily dabbed with mascara. Pippi's carefree life, in which she does not fret over her missing father or her dead mother, would have appealed strongly to me. I could see the nine-year old picturing himself as being a stand-in for Tommy, tagging along for Pippi's adventures. Even though I loved school (or rather, the ability to take what I was taught and apply it to my own interests), there certainly would have been times that I would have loved for a Pippi to just come into the classroom and upend everything. Lindgren does an excellent job in capturing that juvenile joie de vivre that too often fades with mounting expectations and obligations.
But the adult reader in me was troubled by a few passages early in the book. Even setting aside that the novel was published in 1945 and that the library edition I checked out contains an older translation from before certain key edits, there were casual racist elements, such as this passage:
"I've never been in Egypt? Indeed I have. That's one thing you can be sure of. I have been all over the world and seen many things stranger than people walking backward. I wonder what you would have said if I had come along walking on my hands the way they do in Farthest India."
"Now you must be lying," said Tommy.
Pippi thought a moment. "You're right," she said sadly, "I am lying."
"It's wicked to lie," said Annika, who had at last gathered up enough courage to speak.
"Yes, it's very wicked to lie," said Pippi even more sadly. "But I forget it now and then. And how can you expect a little child whose mother is an angel and whose father is king of a cannibal island and who herself has sailed on the ocean all her life – how can you expect her to tell the truth always? And for that matter," she continued her whole freckled face lighting up, "let me tell you that in the Congo there is not a single person who tells the truth. They lie all day long. Begin at seven in the morning and keep on until sundown. So if I should happen to lie now and then, you must try to excuse me and to remember that it is only because I stayed in the Congo a little too long. We can be friends anyway, can't we?" (p. 17-18)
In early 21st century society, that sort of passage would not make it into a published children's book. It is undeniably racist, what with the references to "lying natives" and the implication that the missing father is a lord over a native group (from what I have learned from looking up the series, this actually ended up being the case). In the early-to-mid-20th century, even during the collapse of the colonial empires, such a passage would have been viewed as a more benign portrayal of "exotic" culture and European paternalistic attitudes. Again, as I said above, the adult reader cannot divorce himself from the reading.
Yet despite this jarring passage, which thankfully is not replicated elsewhere in Pippi Longstocking, the novel was a pleasant diversion. Pippi's innocent yet intransigent opposition to social conventions does contain a positive message for both boys and girls in that both can be the hero/heroine, the rebel against authority and the star of the show. Lindgren subtly emphasizes the notion that although the actions of Pippi are extraordinary, there is a underlying universality to her motives that is both right and just. Although this does not redeem the issue noted above, it does make the novel (especially now that many of the elements I read have been excised in newer editions) more palatable.
Pippi Longstocking is an exciting read, one that certainly would appeal to most children who like to read and to dream. Although it contains questionable antiquated racial passages, it also contains several social commentaries, in particular gender roles, that are positive for children and adults alike today. If I were a parent, I could see myself reading aloud all but two passages to my child and in the process, find myself imagining what it would be like to enjoy Pippi's freedom.