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Heidi -- Alpine Ambassador with Staying Power

Leona Frommelt (jam)
May 11, 2004

There are few literary figures as well known as the orphan from the Alps, Heidi. The book that tells her story is a global bestseller. And she's no flash in the pan -- more than a century old, she's still going strong.

Life is sweet in Heidi's mountain idyll

Modern Switzerland might prefer to be known for its multinational companies like Nestlé or pharmaceutical giant Novartis, or maybe its sparkling cities like Zurich and Geneva. But what comes to many foreigners' minds when they think of the small Alpine republic is a little orphan girl from the mountains, Heidi.

Heidi is for many synonymous with clear mountain springs, fresh air and happy, rosy-cheeked children rollicking through the meadows.

Johanna Spyri (1872-1901) wrote her idyllic mountain tale back in 1879, but even today it continues to find new readers. It has been translated into 50 languages, from Afrikaans to Icelandic to Vietnamese, and been filmed dozens of times over the past 70 years.

Big in Japan

In the Land of the Rising Sun, Heidi is almost a cult figure. In 1974, the country produced the most famous animated series made of the story, keeping very close to the original and drawing Heidi and her entourage with a realism that is unusual for Japanese animation. (Although they did create a little canine friend for her, Josef, to better illustrate her connection with animals and the natural world.)

"Many Japanese tourists travel to Switzerland to discover Heidi's home country," said Aya Domenig, a Japan expert. "They're looking for an ideal world, a symbiosis between nature and innocence." Many think nothing of naming their daughters after the heroine of Spyri's book, she added.

The Japanese animation series was a hit in Europe and Latin America as well, and its heroine continues to be one of the world's leading animated figures.

"Heidi is as well known as Coca-Cola and McDonald's," said Walter Leimgruber of the University of Basel. He has put together an exhibition running in Hamburg called "Heidi --Myth, Brand and Media Star."

According to him, Heidi represents human yearnings for happiness and authenticity, something that is stronger than ever at the beginning of the 21st century.

"The fear of loss that societal change brings about is today, in our era of globalization, as current and strongly felt as it was 120 years ago when the Heidi books were first published and societies were undergoing the transition from agrarian societies to industrial ones," said Leimgruber.

Heidi goes to Hollywood

In the U.S., a translated Heidi hit the bookstores in 1899 and was an instant hit. Since then, she has never been out of print there. Not surprisingly, Hollywood discovered her early on and the first silent film was made in 1920.

Twentieth Century Fox put everyone's sweetheart Shirley Temple in the title role in 1937 and watched its profits soar. After World War II, other Heidi films lit up the big screen, an opera was produced, even a folksy musical made it to the stage.

America's own "Little Switzerland," a Swiss colony in Wisconsin named New Glarus, uses the figure of Heidi as a symbol for the old country. Since 1965, residents have held their own Heidi Festival every year complete with yodeling and lots of flag waving.

In her home country, however, Heidi's success came later. "That's because the Heidi myth is actually an outsider's look at this mountain world," explained Leimgruber. For years, the Swiss prefered the more macho William Tell as their hero, although that is changing. Now Heidi is being pushed as a marketing tool as never before -- beginning with the new marketing slogan "From Heidi land to high-tech land." A vacation region has been christened "Heidi Land" and designer houses have begun putting out Heidi fashion collections.

German roots

Heidi is indeed Swiss, but her roots lie in Germany, since author Spyri originally wrote her book for the Friederich Andreas Perthes publishing house in Thuringia. Soon thereafter Heidi made it onto the lists of literature recommended for young people.

Even the Nazis appreciated her, who naturally had to be presented as a blond, blue-eyed "Aryan" girl. Her love of country and nature were a good fit with National Socialist ideology. After the war, Heidi found fans in the new Federal Republic, since Germans were eager for depictions of a world unencumbered by the realities of postwar life.

While Heidi lost her place on recommended reading lists toward the end of the 1960s, she still has legions of fans, and publishing houses keep releasing new editions of the books for new generations of young people. Even in this age of fast-food celebrity, where 15 minutes of fame is an eternity, the sweet little orphan girl from the mountains remains a media star 125 years after she hit the charts.

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