MAXWELL:  The joy Lindgren’s Pippi brought to us

1/30/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“She had no mother and no father, and that was of course very nice because there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having the most fun, and no one who could make her take cod liver oil when she much preferred caramel candy.”

I did not read this magnificent characterization until June 1988, the summer of my divorce. It is the opening of Astrid Lindgren’s 1945 novel Pippi Longstocking, describing 9-year-old Pippi, the central character of the humorous book.

I can honestly say that Pippi, the fictional character, helped me survive the first weeks and months following my divorce, and her adventures forged a lasting bond between my daughter and me. When the divorce was finalized, I was living alone in Bronson. My former wife was living in Fort Pierce, and my daughter, Anastasia, had come to spend the summer with me.

Like Pippi, Anastasia was 9. Trying to find wholesome ways to entertain her, I took her to Mike’s Bookstore in Gainesville. She immediately spotted Pippi. I had never heard of the infamous, carrot-haired enfant terrible. Before leaving Mike’s, I had ordered the sequels, Pippi Goes Abroad, Pippi in the South Seas and Pippi on the Run. They arrived a week or so later.

As we drove back to our home in the woods, Anastasia started reading Pippi, and her laughter caught my attention. I asked her to read aloud to me. At home, we fixed supper, lay on the living room floor and took turns reading aloud.

I had read Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and a host of other novels about boys, but none had captured my imagination like Pippi, probably because I read all of the Pippi novels with my daughter. That same summer, we also made another incredible discovery: Pippi on video cassettes.

So, what made Pippi so appealing? Let me speak for myself first. As a teacher, I was distressed to see so many children being forced into adulthood too soon. I was tired of seeing kids being robbed of their childhood by parents who trapped them in summer school and other supervised activities. I was sick of listening to children who sounded like their parents.

Pippi _ the kid who wears mismatched stockings, oversized shoes, has a monkey named Mr. Nilsson and rides an appaloosa _ is the kind of kid I admire, the kind I had been, at least in part, as I roamed the woodlands and fields of Crescent City and Mascotte as a boy.

Pippi, who lives in Villa Villekulla, is the quintessentially rude urchin. Her rudeness is her beauty. She is the perfect independent mind, the exquisite free spirit. She can out-talk and out-wit any adult. She is childhood personified.

She is the strongest girl in the world. She builds monstrous flying contraptions. She can outrun anyone. She has the smelling ability of a bloodhound, the eyesight of a hawk. She can build a ship. When asked to describe how to build a ship, she begins: “First, you chop down a lot of trees.” No problem. She is Pippilotta Delicatessa Window-shade Mackrelmint Efraim’s daughter.

Although Pippi is powerful, her creator said this about her: “She has power, but she never misuses that power, which I think is the most splendid thing, and the most difficult.”

My daughter loved Pippi mostly for her hilarious irreverence. Like Lindgren herself, Pippi is subversive _ a frightening phenomenon for grown-ups in her tiny village. Anastasia was totally taken by Pippi. She wanted me to buy her a monkey, but I refused. I did, however, buy an additional five acres, turn the land into a pasture, build a horse stable and buy an appaloosa that we named Fancy Pants. I also helped build several contraptions that could not fly.

In short, I became an integral part of my daughter’s childhood. We freely roamed the woods, and nature was an inseparable part of our summers together. Those experiences sustain us to this very moment. In her memoir, Lindgren spoke for my daughter and me and our times together:

“Rocks and trees were as close to us as living beings, and nature protected and nurtured our playing and our dreaming. Whatever our imagination could call forth was enacted in the land around us _ all fairy tales, all adventures we invented or read about, all of it happened there, and only there. Even our songs and prayers had their places in surrounding nature.”

Lindgren died on Monday at her home in Stockholm. She was 94. For Anastasia and me, Lindgren’s greatest gift, the girl Pippi Longstocking, will always be the 9-year-old red-headed terror who brought us such joy and made us close as father and daughter during the toughest time of our lives. Who can forget an orphan who has a trunk full of gold coins and whose father “had become king of the cannibals”?