Many years ago I read Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and disliked it. There was something about Pippi’s tone that most people found to be hilarious, but which I found to be troubling. After buying and reading aloud several Pippi books, I finally gave myself permission to acknowledge my concerns about Pippi’s disrespectful attitude towards adults. I donated the Pippi books to a charity resale shop.
When I was browsing the Bethlehem Books catalog last year, I was shocked to see an Astrid Lindgren book in their inventory. I love Bethlehem Books and haven’t been steered wrong by them yet, so I was sincerely curious about this new-to-me Lindgren book. A quick search of reviews proved that Children of the Noisy Village was cut of a different cloth than Pippi. I gambled and ordered it. It is delightful. So delightful that I have also purchased Happy Times in Noisy Village and Christmas in Noisy Village. All three books have been beloved in my home.
When I saw Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter on many lists for middle grade readers, I was curious. Would Ronia be like Noisy Village or Pippi? I decided to preview it before sharing it with my children. I am so glad that I did.
I am donating Ronia to the charity resale shop.
While entirely different from Pippi, I am surprised that this book is so often recommended on children’s lists. A fascinating spin on Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, this fairy tale reminds the reader of George MacDonald’s faerie worlds. Sadly, however, the content is poorly calibrated to the target audience and has the potential to chip away at our children’s innocence. I found this very unsettling and downright discouraging. There is no question that Lindgren had a creative imagination and a love for stories, but her strange values could put young readers in harm’s way.
The subtext of this story is what troubles me. On the surface, this is a sweet fairy tale. The context of the tale, however, gives us a very different understanding.
Classically like a fairy tale, Ronia opens with the birth of our title character during a dark and stormy night. While Ronia’s mother, Lovis, is in labor, the storm is raging outside and wild harpies are shrieking at the door. While Lovis is preparing for the birth of Ronia, she is singing, handing out orders, and in all ways exuding a domineering feminism that is not common children’s literature. For a children’s fairy tale, this has an eyebrow-raising, earthy, and epic-like start.
“No child had ever been born there, in Matt’s fort, in all their days there.”
Matt is clan leader, chief robber, and father of Ronia. It is unclear whether or not Matt and Lovis are formally married, but Ronia explains more than once that Matt and Lovis sleep in the same bed and that Lovis is the only woman in the entire camp. I know this is not uncharacteristic for a fairy tale, but in this case it seems as though Lindgren intentionally tries to make Matt and Lovis’s relationship ambiguous. Later in the story their relationship is in jeopardy and it is unsettling to see how easily Matt turns his back on the mother of his child. Equally unsettling, Ronia has a strange relationship with her parents. While the young child loves her parents, and the other members of the clan, she is a child who acts like an adult. Matt and Lovis exercise no parental authority over Ronia. From her first steps, they treat her as a beloved member of the clan, but never a child in need of parenting. Her relationship with them is more one of apprentice than child.
The domestic life in Matt’s camp is mirrored by that of a rival robber clan. In Borka’s camp, the only woman is Undis, the mother of Borka’s son Birk. Like in Romeo and Juliet, both Birk and Ronia are the only children of clan chieftains. Approximately the same age as Ronia, Borka meets Ronia in the forest, and they become fast friends. When they realize that they are from rival clans, the two hide their friendship from everyone and lie to their families. Strangely, they claim each other as “brother” and “sister.” Presumably these outlaw children are lonely and would love to have siblings, cousins, and/or playmates. When their fraternal relationship is found out, however, Undis scowls that “we all know what that will mean in a few years.”
Like in Romeo and Juliet, there is a clan war spurred on by a careless Borka clan attack, which nearly kills one of Matt’s robbers. When the children try to stop the clan war, their relationship is exposed and they run away from home. For several months the children live together in a cave. Ostensibly, their relationship is still fraternal. However, Birk struggles with wild jealousy and the two have more than one fight that look a lot like lovers quarrels. In addition to learning how to live together without parental or clan support, they find themselves in perilous situations which demand that they risk their lives for each other. In each situation it becomes more clear to Birk and Ronia, and to the readers, that these two have no intention of ever knowing or loving anyone else.
When the fall weather turns cold, Matt comes looking for Ronia. After behaving like a petulant teenager for more than six months, Matt has become a bit of a mess. He misses his daughter and they reconcile. As an adult, I could not help but wonder why so much of the reconciliation depends upon Ronia making Matt feel better about himself. The children go home with Matt to help broker peace between the clans. The children, however, intend to return to their cave as soon as the weather is more hospitable. No one objects when the children make it clear that they consider their loyalty to each other as paramount, and that they will live together from early spring to late fall every year and return to the shelter of the camp only in the winter months.
Now, there are some really good things in this story. Ronia and Birk really do love each other and they really do risk their lives for each other many times. Also, the children despise the illegal and unscrupulous family businesses of robbing. To the profound disappointment of their chieftain fathers, both children nobly pledge never to act as robber outlaws. In a number of meaningful ways, these children act heroically.
I don’t love stories in which the author takes great pains to make children substantially more noble and more wise than every other adult in the book. I also don’t love stories in which children are cast into adult roles because the author personally believes that children are capable of being adults long before they are of age. Our culture pushes our children to grow up too soon already, and I bristle at children’s books that contribute to the idea that innocence and childhood are unnecessary.
After Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers, Astrid Lindgren is the third most translated foreign children’s author in the English language. Lindgren was a modern author with progressive values. She died in 2002 at the age of 91. Throughout her life, she had a passion for children and children’s literature, but she also viewed herself as a social reformer and often engaged in public debate about progressive issues.
This story had so much potential to be good and wholesome. In fact, I get the impression that Lindgren thought it was wholesome. This made me do a little bit of research about her. If you are concerned about the values she may be including in her stories, I encourage you to do your own research.
Lindgren eschewed traditional values. She engaged in an affair with a married man (her editor) and became pregnant. When he agreed to leave his wife and children for Astrid and their baby, she turned him down. A few years later, she had an affair with married Sture Lindgren which resulted in his divorce and subsequent remarriage to Astrid.
I remain conflicted on Lindgren. I am very grateful for her Noisy Village books. I am not sure if I will try any others. She has one other very popular children’s series that I may investigate later this year. After being so disappointed by Ronia and Pippi, however, I don’t know how motivated I am to check out Karlsson-On-The-Roof.