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pippi longstocking

17 june 2023

I'm 64 years old, I've taught courses on children's literature and on Scandinavian literature in translation, and till this week I'd never read Pippi Longstocking. The time had come.

The final incitement was a BBC list of the hundred greatest children's books, which started with Where the Wild Things Are, listed Alice next, and had Pippi at #3. I'd read #s 4 through 14, but not to have read something set so high was bothersome.

I didn't even know very much about Pippi Longstocking. I suppose I was vaguely expecting some sort of plucky orphan, and I was right about that. But the book is more magical-realist than I expected, and at the same time more socially conscious. Much of Pippi is dreamlike, a feature it shares with Alice. Wish-fulfillment and bizarre associations both abound. It is vaguely like many another children's fantasy novel, but Lindgren's mix of elements is sui generis – which no doubt accounts for the book's great popularity and its great critical acclaim.

Pippi is an orphan, though she doesn't believe it. Her mother has died and her father has disappeared, but she is sure he's king of a cannibal isle somewhere. I take it that in a sequel, Pippi's theory is confirmed. But the father is well out of the picture in the initial book. He has left Pippi a hoard of gold coins. She also possesses superhuman strength and several clever pets, including a monkey and a horse.

Pippi Longstocking is an episodic book. Its episodes do not draw morals, but they bring pressing issues to light, and deal with them in a dreamlike but pointed way (the book's social conscience). Pippi challenges and wins a contest of might against a strongman named Adolf – in 1945, that name can't be just grabbed out of a dictionary. She almost becomes the victim of two thieves, but she reforms them both with her irrepressibility. They are rough customers, but they know how to dance, and she sees them for the good they can do, not the bad they've been up to. She crashes a party of genteel types and mocks their clichéd chatter about how hard it is to find good help. Fascism, the carceral state, and elitist class dynamics meet their match in Pippi, just as many more comic obstacles do.

Of all the classic heroes of children's literature, Pippi reminds me most of Anne of Green Gables. Like Anne, she is an orphan with red hair and freckles; and like Anne, she can't stop talking. The resemblance stops about there, as Anne is a far more realistic series. But in both Lindgren's work and that of L. M. Montgomery, a child who can sometimes make the reader cringe also quickly gains identification from readers who understand what it's like to cringe in social settings – but develop the energy to create a place for themselves, all the same.

Lindgren, Astrid. Pippi Longstocking. [Pippi Långstrump, 1945.] Translated by Florence Lamborn. 1950. Illustrated by Nancy Seligsohn. 1959. New York: Scholastic, 2006.