“Homeless” and “Wiseli finds her place”

Two wonderful stories by Johanna Spyri

by Diana Köhnen

Johanna Spyri wrote a great many stories in addition to the classic children’s book “Heidi”, which made her world famous and which was filmed several times (most recently with Bruno Ganz as Almöhi, 2015). Unfortunately, many of them are out of print. Two have been reprinted, which I would like to present to the reader: “Homeless” and “Wiseli finds her place”. Johanna Spyri repeatedly emphasised that she wrote “stories for children”, but always added “and for those who love children” (Thürer, p. 50).

“Homeless” tells the story of the Italian boy Rico, who grows up in Sils-Maria in the Engadine. His father works in railway construction and often spends many weeks away from home. He is also involved in road construction between Sils and the Maloja Pass and in building houses in St. Moritz. He finally finds work in St. Gallen.
  Rico’s father is a tall, good-looking man, and Rico is the spitting image of him. Rico’s mother and siblings died early, so Rico grows up alone with his father and a cousin who lives in the house. The boy often goes for walks with his father, which take him through the beautiful valley up to Maloja. The father sings many songs and melodies that over time become familiar to the boy. One of them is “Uno sera – in Peschiera”, which the boy always sings.
  One day, the father returns from work injured and ill, having received a deep wound on his head while blasting stones. It does not heal as expected and the father finally dies. Now a sad time for Rico begins, which is only brightened up by Stineli, the neighbour’s child. She and her grandmother are fond of Rico, while the cousin cannot find a kind word for him. Rico longingly tells Stineli about a lake a few days’ journey away behind the Maloja, but he doesn’t know its name. It is linked to his origins. Stineli is convinced that he can probably find out what the lake is called – and eventually he learns the name, it is Lake Garda.
  Stineli’s career is also described in the story; she is the eldest girl in a household with four children and has to do all the work in the household and with the goats alongside her mother. But her grandmother, who knows about her friendship with Rico, always gives her days off, which she then spends with Rico in nature at Lake Sils. In connection with Rico, the teacher who accompanies the songs the children sing at school on his violin is also important. For example, they sing:

Little lambkins, come down
From the bright sunny height;
The daylight is fading,
The sun says, 'Good-night!'
And a lake like another,
That from water is made.
And if they forgot it,
It hurt not a bit.
And the lambkins, and the lambkins…”

When Rico plays this song for him on the violin, the teacher is surprised; however, he realises that this is not magic, but that Rico has read this song from his fingers. One day the teacher falls ill and subsequently dies. Before that, he bequeaths his violin to Rico. When the grandmother presents it to him, Rico cannot contain himself with joy and from then on plays all the songs on the violin, and Stineli and he sing these songs together.
  Once again, the grandmother scolds Rico with harsh words, so he decides to leave the house and never return. He sets off for Peschiera on Lake Garda. On the way he meets a coachman who gives him a lift, and finally also a sheep dealer who faithfully accompanies him.
  “The old road was there below. Oh! he knew that well; and there, there were the great shining red flowers with such green leaves. A little stone bridge ought to be there, somewhere over the outlet of the lake: he had often passed over that little bridge, but could not see it where he stood, however.
  Rico started off, as if driven by the longing that now took possession of him. Down the road he ran; and over there, –yes, that was the little stone bridge. Everything came back to him: there he had crossed, and somebody held him by the hand, – his mother. Suddenly his mother’s face came before his eyes quite distinctly; he had never seen it so clearly before. He remembered how she had stood there and looked at him with loving eyes. It all came back to his mind with a rush.
  He threw himself down on the ground by the bridge, and cried and sobbed aloud, ‘O mother! where are you, mother? Where is my home, mother?’ He lay there for a long, long time, and cried until his great sorrow was somewhat stilled. He thought his heart must burst, and as if all the grief that had been hitherto pent up within his bosom must now find an outlet.”
  Rico’s violin playing and his melodious voice help him to get in touch with the people of Peschiera. He gets to know many villagers, and they help him to gradually feel at home. The reader will find out whether he will see Stineli again and what he experiences in Peschiera when he sets off with Johanna Spyri on the journey to the Upper Engadine and Lake Garda, but I don't want to give too much away.

The second story, “How Wiseli found her way”, is set in a little village in the Bern region. The girl Aloise, also called Wiseli, is at the centre of this story. She is nice to look at, likes to sing along with the piano, and she is very shy. So she doesn’t dare ask the other children if they will lend her their sledge one day when they are hurtling down the slope at full speed in winter. Otto, the colonel’s son, becomes her protector, lends her his sledge and defends her against Chäppi, his classmate, who wants to harm Wiseli. He also guards his younger sister Miezi like gold. When the children tell the story, their father supports Otto in his request:
  “That’s right Otto,” says the dad. “You must do honour to your name, for the defenceless and persecuted you must always be a knight.”
  The flashback and dialogue also tell the story of Wiseli’s mother, who was funny and bright, played all kinds of tricks and never did her schoolwork. The quiet Andres, her class comrade, befriended her at the time and described himself as the author of the pranks, taking the blame on himself to exonerate the girl. But to everyone’s astonishment, the girl married a factory worker who lived in the village, and not Andres, which made him very sad. That one was very rude to her and the children, five of whom died, only Wiseli remained alive. Six months after an accident at the factory, Wiseli's father died and her mother was left alone. Yet Wiseli’s mother also died, but not without giving Wiseli the following advice: “Remember that, Wiseli! When one day you can no longer see a way ahead of you and it becomes very difficult for you, then think in your heart”:

“To God you must confide
Your sorrow and your pain;
He will true care provide,
And show you heaven again.
For clouds and air and wind
He points the path and way;
Your road He'll also find,
Nor let your footsteps stray.”

Wiseli now comes to the hard-hearted cousin Godfather and the cousin, who is in no way inferior to him in this respect, and to the three boys, including the violent Chäppi. Wiseli is harshly treated, driven to work and is therefore temporarily unable to go to school, the only place where she revives. On her way to school she passes the house of the carpenter Andres, who always has kind words for her and whose beautiful garden she marvels at. Wiseli is absent from school so often, however, that the teacher takes notice and therefore approaches the foster parents. Because she is treated well by her classmate Otto, she takes over his tidying up at school, which he doesn’t like to do. She also talks to Andres more often, to whom she finally delivers something from the mother: “Yes; at the very end, when my mother could do nothing more, she drank up the nice syrup that you put on the kitchen-table for her, and it refreshed her very much; and she charged me to tell you that she thanked you for it very much indeed, and for all the many acts of kindness that you had shown her; and she said, ‘He always felt kindly to me.’” Now Wiseli perceived that big tears rolled from Andrew’s eyes and fell over his cheeks. He tried to say something, but could not speak. He pressed the child’s hand, turned him about, and went into the house.” Wiseli eventually finds advocates in the village who are well-disposed towards her. How the story ends for her cannot be said here.

The book is warmly recommended to children and adults. It shows how, despite a difficult childhood, a person can take courage and shape his or her life in a meaningful way. The fate of children in Switzerland in the late 19th century is also touchingly portrayed and the negative consequences of industrialisation come up. It is to be hoped that many more stories by Johanna Spyri will be reprinted.  •

Johanna Spyri

Johanna Spyri was born on June 12, 1827 in Hirzel in the canton of Zurich. She was the fourth of six children of the country doctor Johann Jakob Heusser and the poet Meta Heusser-Schweizer. Her father was a doctor with heart and soul, also operated and cared for the mentally ill in his home. Johanna probably owed her poetic talent to her mother. She wrote spiritual chorales, among others the chorale “O Jesu Christ, mein Leben” (O Jesus Christ, light of my life), which is still sung in the Reformed churches of Switzerland (Thürer, pp. 14). After the village school, Johanna was first taught by Pastor Salomon Tobler, who had a fine library. Here she studied the works of Homer and Goethe. The subtitle of her most famous novel, “Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre” (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning), is reminiscent of Goethe’s education novel “Wilhelm Meisters Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years and Apprenticeship)”. She also learned about the ballads of Friedrich Schiller and Ludwig Uhland there, and the children performed classical plays at home. Later Johanna attended a girls’secondary school in Zurich and then studied French for a year in Yverdon in Vaud. In her youth, she also accompanied her older brother on a trip to the Engadine. He married Regina von Flugi from Graubünden, through which Johanna also became familiar with the Romansh world. She shared her love for the Grisons mountains with the siblings Conrad-Ferdinand and Betsy Meyer (Thürer, pp. 22). The writer compared the cheerful Johanna, with whom he was later to have many conversations, to a “clear bubbling mountain stream” (Thürer, p. 23).
  Johanna was not granted the opportunity to study like her brothers. However, her mother made sure that she was taught in Zurich by the good language teacher Maria Pfenninger. Afterwards, she managed the household in Hirzel with her mother and taught her two younger sisters (Thürer, pp. 23).
  In 1852 she married Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer and editor of the Eidgenössische Zeitung, who later served as town clerk in Zurich. On 17 August 1855, their son Bernhard Diethelm was born. Johanna Spyri took a lively interest in her son’s education, for example learning Latin with him and supporting him during his law studies. She herself joined the supervisory committee of the girls’ secondary school in Zurich at the request of the school president (Thürer, p. 28). The couple also met Richard Wagner, who had fled to Switzerland for political reasons, and attended lectures in a private circle.
  However, the genius cult of the art enthusiasts was repugnant to Johanna Spyri, it did not correspond to “her by nature simple and reasonable nature” (Thürer, p. 31). The acquaintance with the Meyer family was already established by both mothers and lasted throughout their lives. Thus, Johanna maintained a lively correspondence with Betsy Meyer, and Betsy seemed to mean more to her than the contact with Johanna to Betsy. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer appreciated Johanna’s literary judgment (Thürer, p. 32).
  Kinship and friendship ties existed with Bremen through her aunt’s husband in Zurich, and it was the Bremen pastor Vietor who encouraged Johanna to write. He suggested that she publishes her manuscript “Ein Blatt auf Vronys Grab” (A Leaf on Vrony’s Grave) in 1871. This was followed by “Ihrer keines vergessen”, “Aus frühern Tagen”, “Daheim und in der Fremde, “Aus dem Leben”, “Im Rhonetal”, “Ein goldener Spruch”, “In Leuchtensee” and  “Die Stauffermühle”.
  In 1878 her first children’s book “Homeless” was published. The two volumes of “Heidi” were published in 1879 and 1881. The novel became a worldwide success and was translated into more than 50 languages.
  From 1882 to 1886, Johanna Spyri wrote many other children’s stories such as “Vom This, der doch etwas wird”, “Der Toni vom Kandergrund”, “Was der Grossmutter Lehre bewirkt”, “Moni der Geissbub”, “Beim Weiden-Joseph”, “Das Rosen-Resli”, “Was Sami mit den Vögeln singt”, “Und wer nur Gott zum Freund hat, dem hilft er allerwegen”, “In sicherer Hut”, “Vom fröhlichen Heribli”, “Aus den Schweizerbergen”, “In Hinterwald”, “Einer vom Hause Lesa”, with which she wanted to have an educational effect. The shining examples and the cautionary examples were part of this education of the children.
  In 1884, husband and son died shortly after each other. “Even if the double loss went deep for her, she was faithful and vigorous enough to overcome it. Above all, she saw a task before her that fulfilled her. That was writing, the representation of experienced and imagined life.” (Thürer, p. 35)
  From 1885 until her death in 1901, in addition to writing poetry and traveling, Johanna Spyri maintained friendly contact with Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and with many who had come to know and appreciate her work, such as Hermann Grimm, the son of Wilhelm Grimm, who with Jakob Grimm had published the German Children’s and Household Tales. She also met many school classes who were enthralled by the novel “Heidi”.

Source: Thürer, Georg. Johanna Spyri und ihr Heidi.
Schweizer Heimatbücher 186, Bern 1982, Paul Haupt Verlag

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