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Appreciation

Impulsive, Daring Pippi Is Still a Reminder of Who We Want to Be

January 30, 2002|LIBBY COPELAND | WASHINGTON POST

The braids have been done to death. Remember Halloweens with little girls wrapping wire hangers into their hair? Add a blue dress, one sock up and one sock down, and voila, Pippi Longstocking.

In some tiny, light-filled part of ourselves that sober maturity never smothered, we all wish we could be Pippi, redheaded and carefree, blessed with superhuman strength and a never-ending supply of gold coins. Pippi, who didn't need anyone. Headstrong Pippi, who skipped school, pretended to fly and never got hurt when she hit the ground. Impulsive Pippi, who announced that her hot chocolate was finished by upending the mug on her head, then licking the sweet brown river from the tip of her nose. Pure wish fulfillment was what Astrid Lindgren bequeathed when she wrote the first of her three famous Pippi Longstocking books in the 1940s. "Pippi Longstocking" came out in 1945 in Sweden, 1950 in the States. Lindgren died Monday in her native Sweden. She was 94.

The Pippi books were curiously subversive: rebellion barely disguised as a little girl. Pippi lives entirely on her own and does precisely as she wishes. She is sheer joie de vivre; the original slacker, in torn duds and mismatched socks, with her best friend a monkey. When the police show up to take her to school, she is disdainful. Math class? "I have got along fine without any pluttifikation tables for nine years," she declares, "and I guess I'll get along without it from now on, too."

She picks up grown men and carries them off her lawn. When she runs back and hands them cookies, the gesture is either kind or patronizing, depending on where you're coming from.

Pippi "seems to live in a world of her own making," says children's book historian Leonard Marcus. And Pippi is entirely comfortable there, unlike Alice and Dorothy, who really just want to go home.

We all want to be Pippi, but few of us are. More likely we're a Tommy or an Annika, Pippi's normal neighbors. They are the foils to our outrageous Pippi: Annika, always concerned about the state of her dress, and Tommy, whose ordinary-boy bravery seems feeble by comparison with Pippi's. "Do you live here all alone?" Annika anxiously asks Pippi when she first surveys her ramshackle house.

To which the redhead replies, "Of course not!" There's the horse and the monkey, too.

Through Pippi, Lindgren posed the question of what really mattered. "With laughter and seriousness, fantasy and a little audacity, one becomes tall even if one is little--that's what she taught us," Prime Minister Goran Persson said of his country's wildly popular children's author.

Pippi Longstocking doesn't need anyone, which is not to say she doesn't need anyone. There is always something mysterious and sad about Pippi's relationship with her father, who lives as a pirate on the South Seas. This, and Pippi's occasional loneliness, are the only elements that hint at something deeper. Lindgren herself didn't always have it easy. She left her home town of Vimmerby for Stockholm at 19, when she was pregnant and unmarried. She later married, had another child, a daughter named Karin, for whom the first Pippi story was invented. Her work won her dozens of prizes, including the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1958 (and did a neat job of exporting Swedish culture decades before IKEA came on the scene--countless children learned from Pippi that pepparkakor is a kind of Swedish cookie). Lindgren later became a children's and farm-animal rights activist, moving beyond the spunky young girl she was famous for creating. In 1989, visiting the United States to accept an award, Lindgren explained to an interviewer why she turned to creating other characters: "Pippi has had her life. She still exists for children but not for me. For me, she's not there anymore."

Maybe not, but she flies and flops and lifts and runs, even now, in those books--still big sellers 50 years later. "She defies gravity," historian Marcus says. "She's not bound by the usual rules."

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