Witty and hu­mane look at the cre­ator of Pippi Long­stock­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - ANNA CAREY


In the win­ter of 1941, in an apart­ment in Stockholm, a lit­tle girl called Karin Lind­gren came down with pneu­mo­nia. As she lay in bed, her mother Astrid al­le­vi­ated her bore­dom by telling her sto­ries about a funny and fear­less lit­tle girl with amaz­ing strength. The sto­ries were a hit, and not just with Karin. Soon her friends and cousins were de­mand­ing more tales about the girl who would later be de­scribed by a Swedish lit­er­ary critic as “a mix­ture of Huck­le­berry Finn and Su­per­man”.

In 1944, Astrid Lind­gren pre­sented Karin with a spe­cial 10th birthday gift: a typed and bound ver­sion of the ad­ven­tures of Pippi Long­stock­ing. A year af­ter that, Astrid, who had al­ready pub­lished two well-re­ceived chil­dren’s books, asked her editor if she’d like to have a look at the sto­ries she had writ­ten for her daugh­ter. The rest is chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture his­tory. Pippi Long­stock­ing be­came one of the most pop­u­lar chil­dren’s books of the last cen­tury, and its au­thor’s life would never be the same again.

Jens An­der­sen’s lively and in­sight­ful bi­og­ra­phy, trans­lated beau­ti­fully from Dan­ish into English by Caro­line Waight, traces Lind­gren’s life from her idyl­lic child­hood in ru­ral Små­land through her ex­pe­ri­ences as a young sin­gle mother and on to her life as a ma­jor lit­er­ary and pub­lic fig­ure in Swe­den. If, like me, you grew up read­ing about Pippi and Karls­son-on-the-Roof and Ro­nia, the Rob­ber’s Daugh­ter, you won’t be dis­ap­pointed by An­der­sen’s ex­plo­ration of Lind­gren’s life and work. But even those who are ut­terly un­fa­mil­iar with Lind­gren’s writ­ing will find much to in­trigue and en­joy in this af­fec­tion­ate and thor­ough por­trait of an ex­tra­or­di­nary woman.


Lind­gren, then Astrid Eric­s­son, be­gan her writ­ing ca­reer at a lo­cal news­pa­per as a teenager, and the ex­tracts from her first pub­lished work are im­pres­sively witty and con­fi­dent. In 1926, she be­came preg­nant by the news­pa­per’s mar­ried editor Rein­hold Blomberg, and while they ini­tially planned to marry, Astrid’s baby son Lasse was left with a lov­ing foster mother in Den­mark be­fore com­ing to live first with Astrid’s par­ents in Små­land and then in Stockholm with Astrid and her new hus­band, Sture Lind­gren.

In a note for her bi­og­ra­pher, Mar­gareta Ström­st­edt, in the 1970s, Lind­gren de­cried the com­monly held no­tion that chil­dren eas­ily adapt to new sit­u­a­tions, re­mem­ber­ing Lasse’s dis­tress at the many up­heavals of his early child­hood. “It isn’t easy for them to adapt, although it can look like that. They just re­sign them­selves to su­pe­rior forces.” An­der­sen ar­gues con­vinc­ingly that the fo­cus on chil­dren who are in some way lonely or iso­lated in Lind­gren’s nov­els springs from her con­cern for Lasse – even the ex­u­ber­ant Pippi’s ad­ven­tures end with her friends Tommy and An­nika glanc­ing through the win­dow and see­ing Pippi sadly sit­ting alone by can­dle light.

Out­side her fic­tion, Lind­gren wrote re­peat­edly about the ef­fects of early trauma on later life. In­deed An­der­sen places Lind­gren’s work not just in the con­text of (mostly Scan­di­na­vian, un­der­stand­ably) chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture at the time, but in the con­text of con­tem­po­rary ideas about child psy­chol­ogy. Lind­gren her­self re­peat­edly said that Pippi’s char­ac­ter fit in with Bertrand Rus­sell’s be­lief that chil­dren are driven by the “will to power”, but Lind­gren’s bril­liant en­cap­su­la­tion of youth­ful power fan­tasies didn’t go down well with some crit­ics, teach­ers and par­ents, who de­scribed Pippi’s ad­ven­tures as “un­savoury”, “de­praved”and “de­ranged”.


De­spite or, more likely, be­cause of all this, chil­dren loved them. Lind­gren be­came hugely fa­mous in Swe­den, ap­pear­ing reg­u­larly on ra­dio. As she grew older, she be­came an ac­tive cam­paigner on is­sues from tax­a­tion to an­i­mal wel­fare and ruf­fled plenty of of­fi­cial feath­ers while she did it. An­der­sen paints a sym­pa­thetic por­trait of a briskly kind, un­sen­ti­men­tal and gen­er­ous woman, a woman who wrote elo­quently about both lone­li­ness and the joy of soli­tude.

There are a few times when An­der­sen’s grasp of the nar­ra­tive be­comes a lit­tle clumsy – the story some­times skips for­ward in time in a way that could lead readers reader to won­der if they’ve missed some­thing. But that’s a small quib­ble. Not ev­ery writer gets the bi­og­ra­phy he or she de­serves. But with this witty and hu­mane book, Jens An­der­sen has given Astrid Lind­gren just that.


Swedish writer Astrid Lind­gren pic­tured in 1977.

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