It was the first book that was all mine and I slept with it under my pillow. All the other books in the house belonged to Mom or were shared with my brother and sister, neither of whom cared anything about reading or books, not then, not when I was ten and they were eight and five. My sister was more interested in clothes and accessories and my brother in playing outside barefoot and getting dirty and into trouble. Only I cared about the books, the children’s library of fairy tales that I absorbed as a sponge absorbs liquid. Unlike the sponge, I didn’t let go of what I absorbed, carrying the stories with me to regale the neighborhood kids with tales of Ice Queens, adventure, sword fights and magical animals under curses who talked. The book I received from my aunt when I was ten was mine.
The book arrived in time for my birthday and a week long bout of measles that kept me confined to my bed. I opened the package and uncovered Heidi by Johanna Spyri, diving into the world of the angry Grandfather forced to take in Heidi, the five-year-old child of his dead, disinherited daughter. Aunt Dete, who trudged up the mountain to Grandfather’s hut, unceremoniously informed him that Heidi was his responsibility; she had better things to do with her life and Heidi was not an asset. Meanwhile, Heidi shed her clothes down to her shift and ran barefoot through the soft alpine grass, as free and happy as only a five-year-old child can be. I was caught in Heidi’s spell, eating golden toasted goat cheese on bread with a chair for a table and a stool for a seat. Nestled in sweet-smelling hay, I gazed in wonder up at the star-filled sky in the black sky visible through the window, lulled to sleep by soft alpine breezes scented with edelweiss. Johanna Spyri shared a new world with me, a world I could visit any time I wished in my very own book.
Owning my first book was important to me. It’s still important as anyone visiting my cottage can quickly see. Stacks of books cover most of the flat surfaces and fill boxes in my office beneath bookshelves groaning under the weight of words and ideas. Heidi was very different fare for me. I cut my teeth on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and thrilled to Ivanhoe’s adventures. Outside of the fairy tales I collected, and continue to collect, the only children’s books I read were the ones assigned by teachers unfamiliar with my particular taste in literature. Johanna Spyri’s classic tale was a children’s book only because I was a child when it was given to me. I’ve read it over many times since those long ago days stuck in bed, my skin itching like mad from measles and unable to scratch.
In Heidi’s world, I found a soul mate in the little dark-haired girl entranced by new experiences and open to adventure, a little girl unafraid of anything but being cut off from what she loved most. In Herr Sesemann’s house, among the rich furnishing and sumptuous meals, Heidi longed for Grandfather, blind Grandmother, Peter and the goats, but she wasn’t afraid. She knew the change wasn’t permanent. She could go home whenever she wanted. The only thing Heidi feared was being exiled from the mountains, never to sleep in the sweet-smelling hay beneath the glittering stars and run barefoot with Peter and the goats.
Heidi’s nightmares and exile ended when she returns to the Grandfather’s hut. There she remains, running barefoot with the goats in her shift and eating toasted golden cheese on bread and drinking goat’s milk at the table the Grandfather built for her. With Clara beside her in the hayloft, they fall asleep to the lullaby of pine trees sighing from the soft caress of alpine breezes laden with the scent of edelweiss.
When I read Heidi, or any book, I travel beyond the confines of my responsibilities and chores to different worlds in the care of skillful writers painting dreams with words. I see through eyes not so different from mine, except in color or shape, and inhabit a world where anything can happen. The views are not always so beautiful or so rare, and all the people aren’t good or kind or generous, but they are worth visiting, worth experiencing even second-hand. Books are open doors to realms of possibility that open the mind and the heart to show that no matter who we are or where and how we live, we are connected. Books change us and prove we are not alone, provided we let down our guards and welcome dark-haired orphans dancing barefoot in their shifts on the mountainside among the goats.