Perhaps she even wiggled her toes, just like Pippi.
October 22, 2015 12:28 AM   Subscribe

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.
posted by ellieBOA (21 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
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."

I know this man's son. He wasn't from Vienna, he was only writing to his brother who happened to be living there. They came from a family of Romanian Jews who lived in Dresden for a few generations. After Kristallnacht and a proper beating at the hands of local Nazis, my friend's father fled to Prague - just in time for the Munich agreement which again delivered him into the hands of the Nazis. His brother, equally lucky, fled to Vienna just ahead of the Anschluss.

My friend's dad is living in the streets of Prague avoiding the Germans and he happens to come into contact with some trade unionists who are able to wrangle him one of the last of the 250 visas Sweden made available for European Jews. He immigrated to Sweden in 1940, his son, my friend was born in 1941. His brother, my friend's uncle, was sent to one of the camps and killed.

When my friend's father died, my friend found that he had kept letters in the pocket of his coat which he had never seen. They were correspondence that he had with family spread all over Europe and Palestine. Together with these letters and other documents in the family's possession and armed with the story told by his father, my friend decided to research his father's life and write a book about him.

He was frustrated by the discovery that a lot of the Swedish state archives between 1935 and 1945 are simply missing - obviously to avoid embarrassing anyone with the last name of Bernadotte - but one thing he did find was this letter that Astrid Lindgren - of all people - had copied. It fell into state archives some time ago and was known to academics apparently.

It turns out that this was a copy of a letter his father had written to his uncle which Astrid Lindgren had thought important and revealing enough to copy, because the government and the royal family didn't want the Swedish public to know what was really happening in Germany and IIRC this particular letter contained rather graphic descriptions.

So it was known to academics for a while that Astrid Lindgren was a subversive and I discovered this during the summer as I was reading my friend's book, and finally it makes it here to Metafilter.

It's a small world. This man's granddaughter - whose wartime letter was read by Astrid Lindgren and copied in secret - teaches my daughter violin.
posted by three blind mice at 2:18 AM on October 22, 2015 [123 favorites]

^^ Instant sidebar ^^
posted by chavenet at 2:25 AM on October 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh Pippi, you're so fine.
You're so fine, you blow my mind.
posted by Mezentian at 4:00 AM on October 22, 2015

I hag just finished the article - which is splendid - and then tag three blind mice's comment and found myself bursting into tears. You really never know when something you do is going to effect the life of another. The world can be miraculous and terrible at the same time. Thank you fit that story, tbm.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:08 AM on October 22, 2015

Astrid Lindgren is all kinds of awesome. As a neighbour of Sweden, her stories are tightly interwoven with my childhood, and I think with those of my own kids. I haven't mustered the courage to read The Brothers Lionheart to any of them yet, though. I don't know if I'll make it through with my composure intact.
posted by Harald74 at 5:37 AM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

And did you know that Lindgren's writing could even topple governments?
posted by Harald74 at 5:39 AM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Remarkable. I grew up loving Pippi and read all her books, yet I had no idea Lindgren had written others, so I'm delighted there's more to explore. And she sounds incredibly witty and philosophical, lively and talented. Looking forward to these two new books and to discovering the life of a fascinating writer.
posted by Miko at 5:39 AM on October 22, 2015

If you find clips of the Emil i Lönneberga TV series on YouTube, it's Lindgren herself narrating the Swedish version.
posted by Harald74 at 5:53 AM on October 22, 2015

"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.
Fascinating. I have no idea how you'd measure that or what the criteria would be, but is it true? I have no idea who I would nominate for the "world's most important children's book author"!

Anyway, she sounds like a fascinating person.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:18 AM on October 22, 2015

I have no idea who I would nominate for the "world's most important children's book author"!

Dahl, maybe?

I just, at this moment, on the medium that did not exist then, want to thank my teachers for White, Dahl, Lindgren and Moomintrolls; and my grandmother... for Blyton.

The 1970s.
posted by Mezentian at 6:40 AM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I hope the biography and diaries are translated into English. Not sure I can justify purchasing the German editions for our library (nor is my German good enough to read them, which I really want to do!)
posted by billcicletta at 6:57 AM on October 22, 2015

I haven't mustered the courage to read The Brothers Lionheart to any of them yet, though. I don't know if I'll make it through with my composure intact.

Harald74, I hear you! My favorite Lindgren books are Mio, My Mio and The Brothers Lionheart, but the heartache in both is making me think long and hard about how to introduce the books to my kids. I know I wouldn't be able to read it out loud to them without losing it.

Lindgren was just an amazing writer who never talked down to kids and never pulled any punches, yet made you feel that you were strong enough and supported enough to make it through whatever life threw your way.
posted by widdershins at 7:11 AM on October 22, 2015

I found out about The Brothers Lionheart a few weeks ago, from Lucy Knisley's Age of Licence, in which it's described as like a darker/weirder Swedish Harry Potter (though that may be the unreliable-narrator effect of Knisley's very American subjective point of view, through which the recollection is filtered). Then I noticed the references to it in various song lyrics/titles (in English, though from Scandinavian bands).
posted by acb at 8:04 AM on October 22, 2015

The librarian at my elementary school had two books at the top of her recommendations list. The first was Charlotte's Web and the second was Pippi Longstocking.
posted by bukvich at 8:13 AM on October 22, 2015

Last summer, my husband and I visited a friend of ours in Sweden. Wandering into a bookstore, my friend was delighted to discover that both my husband and I had independently read and loved Pippi Longstocking as a children, growing up in Belarus and India respectively. I can't wait to read this diary.
posted by peacheater at 10:06 AM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

She was a wonderful author but an even more amazing person, who had a huge influence on me growing up. Glad to see that people are discovering her other non-Pippi books and some of her very real contributions to society as well. I remember watching the Brother's Lionheart movie from 1977, and it's one of those experiences integral to my childhood that I think shaped me a lot. It and Mio my Mio were certainly the basis for my love of fantasy.
posted by gemmy at 10:53 AM on October 22, 2015

I didn't read Pippi, but watched her shows (or were they technically "films"?) when they were shown in re-run on TV (dubbed into English). It really took me to another world, and it was so great that she - a girl! - had such confidence and showed such leadership. I admired her for qualities I didn't possess myself, not to mention for her sense of sheer fun/pleasure. Reading this article about the author and her other books make me want to read them. Has anyone ever read Pippi or any of the others for the first time as an adult?
posted by Halo in reverse at 1:13 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Has anyone ever read Pippi or any of the others for the first time as an adult? - Halo in reverse

Not the first time, but I preferred other Lindgren books as a child and never had a strong bond with Pippi. Still, I had generally positive feelings toward her as a role model and such, until I re-watched a piece of the TV series this summer. Then I went home to Sweden, where Astrid Lindgren obviously is very famous and her works way ahead of anything else in the children's book canon. A friend there has a two-year-old son, who loves to watch what my friend referred to as "fucking goddamn cock-Pippi"*. To give my friend a break, I sat in for a couple of episodes, and quickly realized that his harsh words were not without ground: At least as portrayed in the series, Pippi isn't likable at all! She's a bully, a psychopath and a showoff, and more annoying annoying than any child you'll actually meet.

I don't see Ronia the Robber's Daughter mentioned and that was a favorite of mine along with Mio and and the Lionheart brothers. I saw the Ronia movie in the theater, and when it was done I just wanted to stay in my seat and watch it again. I hope she wouldn't disappoint me like Pippi if I watched her again today.

* My translation
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 10:51 PM on October 22, 2015

Pippi isn't likable at all! She's a bully, a psychopath and a showoff, and more annoying annoying than any child you'll actually meet.

It has been decades, but isn't that true to the books to some extent, albeit she has a warm heart and good intentions?
posted by Mezentian at 11:27 PM on October 22, 2015

Pippi isn't likable at all! She's a bully, a psychopath and a showoff

Wouldn't this apply to most fictional protagonists to an extent, because of the demands of narrative in themselves?
posted by acb at 2:35 AM on October 23, 2015

Halo in reverse: Has anyone ever read Pippi or any of the others for the first time as an adult?

I never read them as a kid, I think my older sister might have, but I certainly watched TV series dubbed in French. My memory of the show is fairly hazy. Memories of the monkey, horse, pig tails and the stockings are about all I got in my head. However, in recent years my young son has discovered the films and I've been reading the stories to him.

While I don't have as intense a reaction to Pippi as Herr Zebrurka, I'd agree she is definitely a showoff, often comically and willfully ignorant & a braggart. But I think those details are in there to make kids laugh and her positive characteristics easily outweigh the negative ones. So calling her a psychopath is a bit strong I think - after all she rescues kids from bullies (who she is merciless to so there is that), she's rescued children from fires and abuse (giving the abusers what they deserve). Generally, she can be persuaded to listen but usually only by other children. She does do a lot of things that are pretty dangerous with Tommy & Annika as she is very loyal to her friends. But she is always very protective of them. She is insanely positive often when she really shouldn't be but she always tries to find a solution to whatever problem they are experiencing. She is generous to a fault - she's often buying things for the children of the village. I'd say she is always on the side of children and generally suspicious of the adult world.

I think in the novels she's often used as a way to satirize the sometimes incomprehensible behaviours adults indulge in which I think makes her less of a person at times and a more of a literary device. She is a fantastical character after all. Regardless of her faults though, I think Pippi can be charming in a rough sort of way. I find the books are pretty funny if a little dated in the language.

Which leads me to a question: is there a preferred translation of Pippi and the other books?
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:32 AM on October 23, 2015

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