Saturday, January 15, 2022

Classic Rereads: Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, translated by Susan Beard, illustrated by Ingrid Vang Nyman

  This is a new translation of a classic children's story, with the original illustrations included. Most people have at least a general idea of the story of Pippi Longstocking, but the real question is, does it stand up to the test of time?

Pippi Longstocking, conceived as a series of episodic stories told to Astrid Lindgren's daughter, has that peculiar quality of bedtime story that incorporates the unheard interjections of "and THEN what happened?" from an eager child. Pippi is an eccentric and quirky character, immensely strong, with a chest of gold coins, a pet horse and monkey, and her own way of doing everything. She represents absolute freedom to her more conventional neighbors, Tommy and Annika, as she defeats robbers, runs wild at school, and takes over a circus. Nyman's classic black and white illustrations show a diminutive girl with wildly tousled hair, and the classic Shirley Temple style dress of the time period, showing her pants underneath and the garters holding up her mismatched socks.

Originally, adults objected to the Pippi stories because of her wild and ungovernable behavior. She interrupts tea parties, doesn't go to school, and has no manners, tells wild stories, and any attempts by adults in her town to regulate her life lead to their complete humiliation. However, most people realized that she was never intended as a role model and is a wish-fulfillment figure, a fantasy of free living. Even Tommy and Annika, who represent the conventional child, while they find her fascinating also find her a little frightening and often need a break from her company.

However, what I was looking for in this new translation was how the racism of the original was handled. As in many classic European stories, people from countries outside of Europe are treated as exotic animals. In the original, Pippi is sure her father is now a "cannibal king" in the south seas and tells a series of exaggerated whoppers about the countries she's visited, many of which incorporate strings of racist imagery and stereotypes of the people there. In this new translation, Pippi's father is now a "south sea islands king" which I'm not sure is really an improvement, but fairly innocuous. Many of her wild stories are toned down or left out (I think - I might be thinking of stories from other volumes, since she tells the stories throughout all four books), but one in particular, based in China and incorporating several racial stereotypes, is left in.

Verdict: I have no problem with editing older children's "classics" for a new generation. Pippi's stories, in particular, could easily have been left out completely without changing the sense of the story as a whole and I was disappointed that the Chinese one was left in. If you have a large audience for older fiction or feel a need to have this particular title on hand, this is one of the more innocuous translations you'll find, but it could have been better.

ISBN: 9780593117811; This edition published August 2020 by Viking/Penguin; Review copy provided by publisher

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