How My Favorite Childhood Book Changed My Life

This is an essay by Victoria Strauser.

When I was in grade school our class read the book Heidi by Johanna Spyri. This book, written over 100 years ago, is the story of a young orphan girl sent to live with her ornery old grandfather who lives on a mountainside in the Swiss Alps.

Her first summer on the mountain offers Heidi many pleasures never before experienced in her short life – fields of mountain wildflowers, indescribable sunsets, learning how to tend goats with the town goatherd, drinking fresh goats’ milk and eating fresh goat cheese, sleeping on a bed of hay in the loft of her grandfather’s cabin with a view of the stars. A simple, Swiss peasant life.

Life is not all fun and games for Heidi however – losing both her parents as a baby then being dragged up the mountainside by her aunt and left with her grandfather whom most of the town is afraid of; then after falling in love with the mountains and mountain life and her grandfather, being torn away from them to tend an ailing friend in the big city where she is constantly being misunderstood and scolded for not being a “proper” girl.  Her heart aches for the mountain so severely she nearly dies of homesickness.

Although the larger lessons from the book involve philosophical ideas like exploring the relationships (sometimes tenuous) that we have with our extended families, duty versus freedom, and always seeing the best in people even when they don’t seem to deserve it, it was Johanna’s descriptions of Heidi’s simple, peasant mountain lifestyle that captivated me. It was these images that stayed with me long after the days of childhood books and dreams had left me.

As a young girl, I couldn’t imagine a more ideal life than Heidi’s.  Mountain meadows filled with flowers, a flock of friendly goats and a good friend to talk to, simple wholesome food, a tiny cabin home with a fresh straw bed and a view of the stars.

Far from any mountain, my actual childhood home was nestled in the woods on the shore of a very big lake, but my imaginiation made up for the differences in scenery. Paths through the edge of the woods near our home became our make-believe village.  A large rock was utilized as bed-chair-table in our tiny “home.” Bread and cheese were my favorite food staples, and the family dogs became my “goats.”  The steep path up and down to the beach was our mountain trail.

After 18 years of nearly idyllic life in the woods, I moved to a large city to attend college. Much like Heidi not having a choice over being rudely dumped off at her grandfather’s cabin, I didn’t feel like I had much choice over the decision to attend school in the big city. Once there, like Heidi trapped in the city tending her ailing friend, I felt “stuck” and couldn’t figure a way back to a country life again.

My job was in the city.  I couldn’t afford my own home in the country.  And I had a family to think of and plan for and take care of.  My debts were high, with school loans and childcare and later a mortgage. The 100-year-old, three-story brick house had an incredible view of the Duluth harbor, but it was no mountain.  My heart longed for fresh country air and the sounds of bird songs and wind in the pines rather than traffic and sirens.

For a long, long time it seemed my childhood dreams of a country life would be beyond my reach. 18 years of office jobs and big-city living were followed by another 6 years of even bigger city living, as my husband transferred for better work opportunities.  We worked tirelessly to live below our means and pay off our collective debts so we could make some radical changes to our lives.

But despite our efforts, our debts increased.  Multiple health crises hit us.  A child with special needs and a lot of professional care increased the financial burden.  It seemed our debts had no end.

Wearily we plugged along, managing to stay on course, slowly paying off one debt after another, surviving one health crisis after another, dabbling in country experiences like canoe camping and backpacking as we waited patiently to make a permanent move out of the city.  These excursions were but band-aids on my heart’s longing for a country life, and at times I wasn’t sure I could stand the city for one more minute.

In 2008 my country longings started to get the best of me and I discovered alpacas and started my own herd, buying a female named Brigid and boarding her with her home farm 75 miles away since we had no farm of our own.

In 2009 we moved to the country outside of our big, big city to be closer to our alpaca.  We still didn’t own a farm, and my husband now had a 54-mile-a-day commute, but at least I could now see Brigid and her new baby Grace every day as they were just five miles down the road. And my house was once more surrounded by trees and fresh air and bird song.

In 2010 we rented a 2-acre farm on the western side of the big, big city and brought 3 alpacas to our farm and started our first flock of chickens, a little experimental farm of our own. It was clear right from the start on this tiny little farm that I was hooked on the farm life for good and there was no going back.

It’s now 2012, perhaps 35 years or longer after first reading about a young girl on a Swiss mountainside.  We have moved to rural western WI and are about to put an offer on a 40-acre farm and buy our first flock of sheep, who will cavort happily with our small herd of alpacas and flocks of chickens and whatever else tickles our farm-fancy.

I am not a young girl on a Swiss mountainside, but I am a farmgirl shepherd living out my own personal version of Heidi’s story.

A story that all started a very long time ago with a children’s book about an adventurous girl and a dream of a simple life.  A dream that I never forgot.

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Victoria Strauser is a farmer, writer and software tester. She has been published in MaryJanes Farm Magazine and authors a blog, www.gypsyfarmgirl.com. She lives with her husband in western Wisconsin on a farm with their alpacas, sheep, chickens and a few spoiled house cats.

 Photo: Some rights reserved by Adam Arthur.

8 Replies to “How My Favorite Childhood Book Changed My Life”

  1. One of my own favorite books was “Mistress Masham’s Repose” by T.H. White. I owned a copy of it when I was 10 and remember being so riveted by it that when it was time to go to bed I took the book under the covers with me and finished reading it by the light of my Girl Scout flashlight. (Which no doubt accounts for why I have such bad eyesight as an adult!)

    Since my own copy had been long gone, I was delighted to discover I could buy a replacement on Amazon. Instead of preceding this one with a cup of hot chocolate and finishing the last chapters by flashlight, however, I had a martini and happily stayed up until midnight.

    Time has not diminished in any way the satisfaction of a tale well told.The story speaks to timeless themes about the powerlessness of children in the dreary world of rules imposed by adults. Is it any wonder, then, that the spunky heroine, Maria, delights in the colony of Lilliputians she discovers on the grounds of Malplaquet and sees a ready kinship with their dreams, fears and sense of righteous rebellion. Although she is not a perfect child, Maria is possessed of a kind heart that infuses her with bold – and sometimes comedic – determination to save her diminutive friends from harm. T.H. White seamlessly intercuts between the two worlds that Maria inhabits.

    It wasn’t until many years after I first read this book that I recognized striking parallels to the novel for which White is most famous –”The Once and Future King.” Maria shares much in common with the bewildered young King Arthur, including the “Merlin” mentorship of a bookish professor and a quest to keep an enchanted and special version of backyard Camelot from being absorbed by external vice and unabashed greed.

    Although the book is targeted to lower grades, one would never know it from White’s style and engaging use of language. He would be the type, I think, who could hold lengthy discourses about the state of the world with a rapt gaggle of 10 year olds and they would never once think that he was talking down to them nor trying to impress them with philosophies beyond their vocabularies or frame of reference. Whether you’re discovering this literary treasure for the very first time or revisiting it after a long absence, it doesn’t fail to entertain or inspire.

  2. Just last evening I was recalling HEIDI and Spyri’s descriptions that have remained clear in my mind after all these years. Meadows, mountains, soft white rolls, the wilting of beautiful flowers. Spryi knew how to involve the five senses in her writing. I still envision the stool Heidi’s grandfather made for her, the foam on the milk, the bread toasted over an open fire, the smell of the straw in the loft. Oh, it was magic. As writers we can all learn from Johanna Spyri.

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