Who was the woman behind Pippi Longstocking? Freshly released wartime diaries along with a new biography reveal Astrid Lindgren, author of some of the world's most beloved children's literature, to be as radical and determined as her best-known character.
The seagulls are mewing and the air smells like the ocean. The Swedish island of Furusund looks exactly the way Astrid Lindgren described in her novel "Seacrow Island." Not far from the jetty is a red wooden house surrounded by a white garden fence. There's no gate, so anyone can enter. The yard is overgrown with grasses and wildflowers.
Astrid Lindgren spent many summers on the island of Furusund, and she wrote many of her books there. In her 70s and 80s, when she had already become an icon in Sweden and was receiving piles of letters from fans around the world on major birthdays, she went to Furusund for seclusion. It was quieter and more peaceful than in Stockholm. The children's book author was on good terms with island residents, but when tourists asked: "Where does Astrid Lindgren live?" they usually responded: "We're afraid we don't know."
Lindgren liked to sit on the small second-floor balcony with a view of the sea. There is a bench in a corner of the balcony. Karin Nyman, Lindgren's daughter, who is now over 80 and closely resembles her mother, says: "Take a look under the bench."
It's easier said than done. Dates, a few words and many stenographic symbols are written in pencil on the underside of the bench: "July 3, 1963. Summer. Radiant. Like in the good old days. The early summer was magical. I was here all of June and wrote "Michel from Lönneberga." The book is now finished. We bought a sailboat, the 'Saltkrokan.'" Lindgren must have laid flat on her back to write these words, with her feet sticking out from underneath the bench. Perhaps she even wiggled her toes, just like Pippi.
The Quintessence of Sweden
"Pippi Longstocking" made Astrid Lindgren a household name, and she is still the world's most important children's book author, even more so than J.K. Rowling, author of the "Harry Potter" series. Lindgren's large body of work includes melancholy, magical books like "Mio, My Son" and "My Nightingale is Singing." She invented characters like Madita and Lotta, Karlsson-on-the-roof and Kalle Blomquist. With her Bullerby books, she captured the quintessence of Sweden, and even tackled the subject of death in "The Brothers Lionheart."
Today almost every child in Germany is familiar with Astrid Lindgren's books. Those who don't like to read have seen a film, a TV series or a play based on her works. Her characters live on in the childhood memories of the baby boomer generation. In the 1960s and 70s, there were few alternatives to Lindgren's children's books.
The author wrote about the lives of many people, but she was always reserved when it came to her own life. Two new books about Lindgren will be published in German this fall. One is an excellent biography by Jens Andersen, who portrays her as an open-minded woman for her time. The second book, a publication of her wartime diaries, reveals how accurate this portrait was. Both works are contemporary literary documents that depict Lindgren as an author who used her humor to contend with the horrors of war, and as someone whose desire to tell stories was partly a result of the determination to keep her chin up in the face of adversity.
After hesitating for years, Lindgren's family decided to publish her diaries. During the war years, the author filled 17 notebooks with her diary entries, and pasted newspaper cuttings, food ration coupons and flyers in between the pages. She assiduously kept her diary for six years, interweaving the events of her own life with world politics.
In the first entry, dated Sept. 1, 1939, she writes: "The war began today. No one wanted to believe it." In the last entry, written on New Year's Eve in 1945, she writes: "I wish myself a happy new year! Myself and my family! And the entire world, if possible, but that is probably asking too much."
Her notes say a lot about the concerns and everyday life of a middle-class Swedish family. But they also offer a glimpse of domestic happiness, such as bicycle trips and walks among the flowers in Vasapark, and the family's move to a larger apartment. In addition to her assessments of political events -- "National Socialism and Bolshevism are like two dinosaurs fighting each other" -- Lindgren meticulously notes which provisions she was able to hoard for her household, which dishes were served on holidays and what her children Lars and Karin received as presents.
She wrote the diary as a citizen of a country that was not actively involved in the war. Sweden maintained its neutrality by making concessions to the Nazi regime. Still, the front drew gradually closer to Sweden. The 1939/1940 winter war between Finland and the Soviet Union, and the occupation of the Baltic countries, fanned the fears of the Swedish population, as well as Lindgren's own. "I met a Finnish woman at Elsa Gullander's house on Sunday," she wrote. "She said terrible things about the Finnish war and how the Russians treated their prisoners." This impression led her to describe Stalin as a greater threat than Hitler in June 1940.
Lindgren was not yet famous when she began writing her war diaries. To earn money, she took a job with the letter censorship division of the Swedish intelligence agency in 1940. Although she was required to treat everything she read there as confidential, it inevitably left an impression on her. Individual letters, which she secretly copied in shorthand at the main post office, are mentioned in her diary. In March 1941, she wrote: "Hitler apparently intends to transform all of Poland into a ghetto, where the poor Jews will die of hunger and filth." She had read a letter from a Viennese Jew who had recently fled to Sweden and had a brother "among the unfortunate ones."
"My mother wrote this diary to help her understand what was happening," says Karin Nyman. "She wanted to be able to comprehend how the events could have developed as they did."
More than a decade after Lindgren's death in 2002, her readers are now being introduced to an author who was very interested in politics, a grown woman who was coping with an everyday life that included two children and a husband who was not uncomplicated. "Too bad that no one has shot Hitler," she wrote in the fall of 1939. The diary marks the beginnings of her lifelong commitment to peace.
Amid flashes of humor and eccentricity, her talent as a writer gradually begins to take shape. In her unmistakable tone, a mixture of clarity, sensitivity and wry humor, she wrote, on Sept. 5, 1942: "The war has just turned three, but I didn't celebrate its birthday."
There was a crisis in her marriage in the summer of 1944. Her husband Sture had fallen in love with another woman. "A landslide broke into my life," she wrote. Lindgren suffered from insomnia and anxiety, and it was the intimate passages she wrote that made her family hesitate to publish the diary.
"Tell us about Pippi!"
Lindgren's daughter, Karin Nyman, is sitting on the terrace of her own house on Furusund, a short walk from the red wooden house. When her mother was about 80, says Nyman, she sat with her on the same terrace and read the war diary out loud to her once again. Lindgren had lost some of her eyesight and could no longer read. Afterwards, she said: "It's a good thing that I wrote that."
When Lindgren published "Pippi Longstocking" in 1945, shortly after the end of the war, it was a sensation: A book with a heroine who can eat an entire cake at once, hangs unpleasant boys over tree branches and, in the circus, defeats the "Mighty Adolf, the strongest man in the world." "Dideldibum und dideldidei."
Sometimes a book is published, and its impact is like a thunderbolt. "Pippi Longstocking" turned the established order upside-down, because it has a girl as a heroine who is stronger and many times smarter than any adult, and because the anarchy in the book triumphs over middle-class decency.
What made Lindgren invent such a hero in the middle of the war? Literary scholar Barbara Vinken described "Pippi Longstocking" as a "shifting insurrection." In March 1944, Lindgren noted in her diary: "On the home front, Karin had the measles, with everything that goes with it, and she isn't allowed to get up yet. -- I am currently greatly amusing myself with Pippi." She had injured her ankle and was forced to stay at home and rest. She was bored and took advantage of the time to write.
The girl with the supernatural strength had been entertaining the Lindgren family for more than two years by this point. In December 1941, Lindgren was sitting at her daughter's bedside. Karin had pneumonia. "To keep my mother at my side a little longer, I said to her: Tell me something about Pippi Longstocking. I had never thought of the name before. I simply invented it out of thin air to encourage my mother to tell me a story."
Lindgren had dreamt up more new stories by the next evening. Soon Karin's friends were coming to her house to hear more about the red-haired girl, and her female cousins in Småland were also crazy about Pippi's latest adventures. "Tell us about Pippi!" they would say.
Taking Children Seriously
There has been a great deal of research and academic discussion on what induced Lindgren to develop such a revolutionary and modern children's book character. Karin Nyman remembers all too well that "there was a permanent sense of fear hanging over all of our lives," even in Sweden. "The world was gripped by horror, and Pippi was a reaction to it. The stories were a way to oppose it, to give us a chance to come up for air."
Lindgren was an avid reader. The novel "Hunger" by Knut Hamsun helped her endure the poverty she experienced as a young woman in Stockholm. She later claimed that the novel's wry humor spurred her to create her radical Pippi character. The author read many children's books to her children, Karin and Lars, including classics like "Tom Sawyer" and many fairy tales. She would later mention having been familiar with the writing of Alfred Adler, the progressive teaching theories of A.S. Neill and Bertrand Russell's thoughts on education.
"Pippi Longstocking" is the work of a wife and mother who loved reading, and whose education and experiences flowed into the book. She allowed herself to be infected by the enthusiasm of her young listeners, and she was always convinced that children had to be taken seriously.
When she had finished "Pippi," Lindgren sent the unsolicited manuscript to the well-known Bonniers publishing house. The cover letter she included reveals a great deal about her self-confidence, but it also exposes the life-affirming panache that would characterize her books.
"As you will see, Pippi Longstocking is a small übermensch in the form of a child, living in a perfectly normal environment. Bertrand Russell wrote that childhood is dominated by the desire to become an adult, or rather the will to power. According to Russell, a normal child dwells on fantasies that relate to the will to power. I don't know if Bertrand Russell is right. Judging by the practically pathological popularity Pippi Longstocking has enjoyed over the course of two years among my own children and their friends of the same age, I am inclined to believe him. I hereby entrust the manuscript to your expert hands, and I can only hope that you will not notify the youth welfare office. To be on the safe side, I should point out to you that my own, unbelievable well-behaved, angelic children have suffered no damage whatsoever as a result of Pippi's behavior. Respectfully, Astrid Lindgren."
When she received a rejection letter five months later, she returned to the manuscript, and gave the girl a mother in heaven, a father in the South Seas and a smidge of a guilty conscience.
Happiness from Within
The original version of the book has long since been published, and its emancipatory power surpasses the first "Pippi Longstocking" to appear in print.
For Lindgren, the publication of "Pippi Longstocking" in November 1945 marked the true beginning of a literary career. It was a key moment in her life. After several difficult months apart, her husband had returned to her. "Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill," she wrote in her diary, quoting the words of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. The lines mirror her melancholy feelings about the condition of her marriage.
But the episode could not curb her productivity. Within a few years, she had written two more Pippi books and three volumes of stories from Bullerby, and she had invented Kalle Blomquist. Lindgren was almost 40 and had already lived half a life when she became a world-renowned children's book author practically overnight.
The euphoria over the end of the war played an important role in her success. Seventy years later, Lindgren's diary entries from May 7, 1945 still convey the boundless joy that had erupted in Sweden over Germany's imminent capitulation. "Stockholm is filled with immense rejoicing. The Kungsgatan is covered with a layer of paper several centimeters thick, and all the people are behaving as if they were crazy." The words Lindgren wrote in those days in May are among the most moving passages in the diary. She too was caught up in the frenzy of liberation, and yet her words were those of an adult woman who saw the world from a disenchanted perspective. The events of the last few years -- the madness of the war, which she had refused to ignore, and the crisis in her marriage -- had disillusioned her.
These experiences awakened in Lindgren the determination she had shown as a 19-year-old, when she gave birth to her illegitimate son Lars at a hospital in Copenhagen and kept the name of his father a secret. They also led to an emancipatory insight she penned at Christmas in 1944: "If you want to be happy, it has to come from within."
A Life with Ruptures
Lindgren's first career aspiration was to become a writer. She was barely 17 when she decided to enter a traineeship in journalism at the Vimmerby Tidning, a daily newspaper. In the early 1920s, it was an unusual profession for a young woman from a small city. But Astrid Lindgren, who was still Astrid Ericsson at the time, had always had the reputation of an unconventional young woman in her hometown of Vimmerby. She had been a "real jazz flapper girl," she later said, wearing jackets, baker's boy caps and a short haircut. Thanks to the women's movement, Swedish women received the right to vote in 1921. But this didn't mean that the movement's progressive ideas were widely accepted in provincial Sweden.
Biographer Jens Andersen devotes more than 100 pages to Lindgren's late youth and early 20s, a time that marked her own passage into the modern age. She wrote many articles as a trainee, about court cases, accidents and crimes, as well as a three-part report on six young women who had hiked through southern Sweden. Lindgren left the paper in September 1926, when she was not even 19 yet, because she was expecting a child from the married editor-in-chief, who was 30 years her senior.
Andersen describes the ensuing years as a rupture that would shape Lindgren's life. She moved to Stockholm and entered a training program as a secretary and stenographer. But she did not want to give birth to her child in Stockholm, and the baby's father was involved in a difficult divorce trial. Lindgren turned to women's rights activist Eva Andén for help. Andén advised her to have the baby in Denmark.
In late November Lindgren, who was heavily pregnant at the time, traveled alone to Copenhagen, where she found a foster family for her son, Lars. On the surface, the arrangement seemed to work, but the young mother suffered greatly from the separation. It was a difficult time that lasted three years.
When his foster mother fell ill, Lars spent more than a year with Lindgren's parents on the Näs farm, where she herself had spent a happy childhood. She later called it a "pioneering act," to have gone for walks through the streets of Vimmerby holding the hand of her illegitimate son. It was not common "for single mothers to tout their children as miracles, just like any other child," Lindgren said later. But she had already left the morals of her hometown behind. She eventually met Sture Lindgren in Stockholm, and when they were married in the spring of 1931, she was finally able to bring home her son.
Lindgren was long silent about this chapter of her life, and only spoke of it to journalist Margareta Strömstedt in the 1970s. That account, together with the publication of the war diaries, now provides us with a more complete picture of Lindgren's life, one that explains her great compassion for children and her stubborn determination.
The Life of a Modern Woman
Lindgren was awarded the German Booksellers' Peace Prize in the fall of 1978. Her acceptance speech was titled "Never Violence," and she had sent the speech to Frankfurt in advance of the event. She received a letter in return from a man she called the "Supreme Decider," who suggested that it might be a good idea for her to accept the prize without giving a speech. It was not a good idea, she wrote back, and she made it clear that she would either give her speech or not travel to Frankfurt at all.
On Oct. 22, she stood in St. Paul's Church, wearing large, horn-rimmed glasses, and talked about how aggression and war have their beginnings in nurseries. "Even the characters of future statesmen and politicians are formed before they reach the age of five -- this is horrifying, but it's true." Her speech was a plea for raising children without violence. She talked to impressive effect about how children must feel when their parents deliberately hurt them. In 1978 Germany, parents still had the right to inflict corporal punishment. More than 30 years after the publication of "Pippi Longstocking," the world was still not at all the kind of place children liked.
At the end of her career as a writer, Lindgren invented yet another character, someone who could have been a friend of Pippi's. "Ronia the Robber's Daughter," published in 1981, was Lindgren's last novel, a tale of courage and persistence.
The fearless Ronia is born on a stormy night. Her father, the robber chief Mattis, falls under his daughter's spell from the very beginning. But a conflict erupts between the two when she and the son of his worst enemy become friends. Ronia refuses to allow her father to tell her what to do, nor does she give in to the other strong men in Mattis Forest. She has her own convictions and eventually goes her own way.
Lindgren wrote the story of Ronia in the red wooden house on Furusund. Her grandchildren own the house today and have lovingly renovated it. Lindgren's old typewriter is perched on a small table on the second floor, and her bed stands next to the window in the adjacent room. It was where she wrote many of her books in shorthand, as she gazed out at a gnarled tree and the sea. "My mother always wrote in the early morning hours, and preferably in bed," says Karin Nyman. "She never made a fuss about it. She simply wrote."
It was never her intention, but Lindgren lived the life of a modern woman, self-determined and free in her mind. She saw her early pregnancy, the war and her difficult marriage to Sture Lindgren as challenges. She did not remarry after her husband's death in 1952, but she never felt sad about it. "I'm happiest when I write," she wrote in her war diary in March 1945.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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