Astrid Lindgren, Rebel and Writer

Sarah Harrison Smith on March 01, 2018

LindgrenCover.jpegPippi Longstocking -- or, to be strictly proper, "Pippilotta Delicatessen Windowshade Mackrelmind Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking" -- is the freckle faced, red-haired Swedish girl whose confident, playful, and far-from-proper ways stole the heart of Swedish children when Astrid Lindgren published Pippi Langstrump shortly before Christmas in 1945.

Germany had surrendered six months before the book's publication, but Europe was still reeling from the war. Even Lindgren's native Sweden, which had been spared the worst of the conflict, suffered rationing, conscription, and constant fear of invasion. As Jens Andersen tells it in Astrid Lindgren: The Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking, the first English-language biography of Lindgren, Pippi can be seen as Lindgren's direct reaction to the war, and, more broadly, to authoritarianism of any kind.

NoisyVillagecover.jpegThat streak of independence marked Lindgren's character throughout her life, which is itself an extraordinary, and dramatic story. Lindgren spent her childhood in a tiny farming community (familiar to readers from her wonderful "Noisy Village" stories), one of four children born to a pious and upright couple who were sometimes baffled and upset by her decisions -- to bob her hair, to embark on an affair with the married publisher of the local newspaper where she worked as a teenage journalist, and then to bear their son, and raise him alone. 

Lindgren's experience of raising that son, Lasse, illuminated for her the difficulties children faced in unstable or domineering families. Initially, she was too poor to look after him herself, and with her former lover's help, paid for him to live with a foster mother in Denmark. Lindgren visited regularly and was, by all accounts, a devoted mother. But she knew how hard it was to reconcile his attachment to his kind and loving foster mother with his feelings for her.

PippiCover.jpegEventually, Lindgren was able to bring Lasse back to live with her in Stockholm, and she made a more conventional home life for him there with Sture Lindgren, the man she married in 1931 (like her first lover, he was also her boss). But she was sensitive to the problems that the dislocations of Lasse's early life caused for him, and for children whose lives were even more significantly upended by the war. Her commitment to advocating for children's need for emotional security, for unconditional love, and for freedom to play informed all of her later writing. 

Sture and Astrid also had a child together, Karin, who was the first recipient of the Pippi stories. In 1941, Karin, who was often ill, was stuck in bed with "something pneumonia-like" and required entertaining. Lindgren started to improvise stories for Karin, and soon Pippi emerged: an entirely new character in children's literature.

Image_2-27-18_at_2.48_PM.jpgAndersen writes: Pippi "was a cheerful pacifist whose answer to the brutality and evil of war was goodness, generosity and good humor. When someone approached Pippi aggressively or threateningly -- whether it be hooligans, social authorities, police officers, burglars, or a circus ringmaster,and his strongmen -- she instinctively believed they wanted to play, dance, or just fight for fun."

Lindgren chronicled her war years in a series of journals she kept at the time, published in English in 2016 as War Diaries, 1939-1945.  At the time, Lindgren had a night job for Swedish Intelligence, reading letters that passed through the censor's office, so she was unusually well-informed about the progress of war for a woman who otherwise spent her time at home with her children and husband.

Lindgren was horrified by what she gleaned about concentration camps and mass killings, and that knowledge cast her own family happiness into shadows. On Christmas Day in 1943 she wrote, "Everything's thrown into such sharp relief by the rest of the world being so full of misfortune and misery, such concentrated misery that when I heard the bright voices of a children's choir from Germany singing 'Stille Nacht' I went out into the kitchen and wept. Those children with their angelically lovely voices are growing up in a country where the whole idea is to do violence to other human beings." 

But the War Diaries, though animated and fascinating, left many questions unanswered. What was the cause of the marital crisis Lindgren alludes to in 1945? Would her career as a writer prosper after the war? Lasse's parentage was never addressed: reading the diaries, one assumes that he, like Karin, was a child of Astrid's marriage to Sture.

Clearly, a full English-language biography was needed, and Jens Andersen, who previously wrote an acclaimed life of Hans Christian Andersen, has produced a marvelous, illuminating history of the life of a woman whose writing expressed her own rebellious, playful nature and the astute psychological insights she acquired as a mother and woman during some of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century. Read it, and you'll be inspired to turn again to Lindgren's many childhood classics, to see how this extraordinary woman's vision and experience informs her fiction.

 (Jens Anderson Photo by Robin Skjoldborg) 

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