Johanna Spyri (1827-1901) was born in the village of Herzel, Switzerland, near Zurich. Her husband, Bernhard Spyri, served as the town clerk of Zurich. She was the mother of one son, also named Bernhard, who suffered from poor health, much like the character Klara in Heidi. Mrs. Spyri began to write stories in her home. Heidi, the first of her longer stories, was published in 1880.
The book is about an orphan girl, Heidi, who goes to live in the remote Swiss Alps with her gruff, cantankerous grandfather. She also goes for a time to live in Frankfurt with a wealthy household to be a companion to a sick child, Klara. By kindness and pluck, Heidi is able to win the hearts of the adults and children who come into contact with her. Heidi finally returns to live with her beloved grandfather on "the Alm." When Klara comes for a long visit she is miraculously restored to health from salubrious country living.
As I read the book I was struck by its overt religious and spiritual themes. Aside from obvious messages, like the duty to be kind to orphans and widows and the importance of family, one might say that the major theme of the book is the Providence of God.
Here are a few glimpses (quotes from Companion Library edition, Grosset and Dunlap, 1963):
- When Heidi is home sick in Frankfurt, Klara’s grandmother comforts her and encourages her to pray:
"Come, my child," she said, "I want to tell you something. When we have a sorrow we cannot speak to anybody about, then we tell the dear God in heaven, and ask Him to help us, for He can take away every sorrow that troubles us. You understand that, don’t you? You pray every night to the dear God in heaven, and thank Him for everything good, and ask Him to keep you from all harm, don’t you?"
"Oh no, I never do that!" answered the child.
"Have you never prayed, then, Heidi? Do you not know what it is?"
"…You see, Heidi, the reason you are so sad is because you know no one that can help you. Just think what a good thing it is, when something troubles and distresses you in your heart, that you can go any moment to the dear Lord and tell Him everything, and ask Him to help you, when no one else can help you! And He can always help you and make you happy again" (p. 114).
- Klara’s kind grandmother teaches Heidi to read using a story book version of "The Prodigal Son."
When Heidi returns to her rough grandfather she reads him the story, exuding, "Isn’t that a beautiful story, grandfather?" That night, after Heidi is tucked away to sleep, the grandfather bows his head and prays with tears rolling down his cheeks, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son!" (p. 165). The people of the village are shocked the next Sunday when the notoriously anti-social "Alm-uncle" and his little granddaughter attend worship at the local church. When Heidi notes a change in his appearance, the grandfather replies, "Well, you see, Heidi, I feel happy because I am on good terms with people and at peace with God and man; that does one good! The dear Lord was good to me when He sent you up on the Alm" (p. 169).
- Heidi strikes up a friendship with a doctor from Frankfurt who is grieving the death of his only child.
When he asks the child what one should do with his sorrow, Heidi replies, "He must tell everything to the dear Lord, if he does not know what to do."
The Doctor responds, "But if what makes you very sad comes from Him, what can you say to the dear Lord?"
The precocious theologue answers: "Then you must wait, she said after a while with assurance, "and keep thinking: ‘Surely now the dear Lord knows some joy which is to come out of this by and by, so I must be still for a little and not run away from Him.’ Then all at once it will happen so that you will see quite clearly that the dear Lord had nothing but good in His mind all the time; but because you could not see it so at first, and only had the terrible sorrow all the time before you, you thought it would always remain so" (p. 195).
Later, when Heidi and Klara look at the twinkling stars, Heidi observes they shine, "Because they see up in heaven how well the dear Lord directs everything for people, so that they need have no worry and can be safe, because everything will happen for the best…. But you know Klara, we must not forget our prayers; we must ask the dear Lord to think of us, when He is directing everything so well, that we may always be safe and never afraid of anything" (p. 242).
My guess is that Heidi’s popularity has slipped in recent years for the very reason that it is so "Christian" in its outlook. Sadly, many in our jaded culture would also likely see its hopeful message as hokey or naïve. Maybe that’s all the more reason to promote its reading to our children.