Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi in the South Seas (1959)
Trans. Gerry Bothmer
Illus. Louis S. Glanzman

Pippi kicks ass.


She stands out.

Sure, a lot of the heroines I’ve been spending time with this summer are spunky. S’why I liked them.

Whether it was Ramoma adding whiskers and a tail to the Q in her last name in kindergarten. Or whether it was Arrietta daring to talk to humans when she’s been warned that they’ll bring nothing but grief to the Borrowers.

They found ways around the rules, when the rules didn’t afford them room to be themselves. They’re rebellious (but not reckless). They’re aspiring to be inspiring…without knowing it (well, with the exception of some of the more overtly moralistic stories that I haven’t chatted about here yet).

But Pippi? Pippi can actually lift a transgressor (a bully, a tyrant) off the ground and send them reeling. She’s the strongest girl in the world. She can right wrongs.

And she doesn’t always follow the rules whilst she’s righting those wrongs. She’s not above telling a lie to someone whose motives are corrupt.

“But do sit down and wait a while, and she will probably come along.”
“She,” said the fine gentleman with a pleased look. “Is it a she who owns this miserable house? So much the better. Women don’t understand business. In that case there’s a hope of getting it cheap.”
“We can always hope,” said Pippi Longstocking.

Yes, the same Pippi Longstocking who’s speaking right now. The owner of that “miserable house”. Who has astutely sussed out the fact that this “gentleman” is not at all a “gentleman”, but a predator waiting to strike based on his own selfish neediness and greediness.

She takes care of that. And she saves a beetle, puts the mighty Miss Rosenblom in her place, and gives gold and candy to children who have none. (And more.)

Is it a perfect story? No. Aspects of it still smack of colonialism (though not, in my opinion, to the extent of some of the other reading/rereading that I’ve done this summer).

Pippi’s father is the king of the Kurrekurredutts, who live on a Pacific Island, with his only qualification for the role being that he is a “fat white chief”. (Sigh.)

[This is explained in the first two Pippi stories, Pippi Longstocking and Pippi Goes on Board but for the most part these tales rely on the fact that Pippi is a free agent, isolated from — and unobserved by — parents who always know just how to ruin a good time.]

And when Pippi arrives on the island with two neighbourhood children, they are worshipped as well, their royal status presumably accorded to them on the basis on their being skinny white relatives of King Efraim I Longstocking.

This is a minor aspect of the story, but a similar development in Edward Eager’s Magic by the Lake rubbed me completely the wrong way, largely because none of the island-dwellers had even the slightest character development.They were cardboard cutouts.

Should the island children in Pippi in the South Seas be afforded more of a role in the story? Perhaps. And, yet, Momo and Moana do figure in the goings-on. They play with Pippi as spiritedly as Annika and Tommy.

And they are judged decidedly superior, as representatives of “southern children”, in some aspects. Although I suppose one could debate whether spitting further than nothern children is a skill to be lauded publically, but there are many indications that what Pippi judges worthy of praise is not what mothers and fathers traditionally hope their young ones will excel at.

It’s tricky, reading from another time. It’s hard to find the line between tolerating intolerance and perpetuating injustices.

When I find something to admire about a classic text that isn’t entirely admirable, I feel as though I sound like I’m trying to excuse the inexcusable.

But Pippi does kick ass.

And she does decide to leave the island and her role of princess behind to return to Villa Villekulla.

(Perhaps she wasn’t entirely comfortable with that whole colonial-thing either.)

What are we “modern” readers to do? Do we throw out the island with the sea water, or do we enjoy the breadfruit and coconuts as long as they’re sustainably harvested?