Girls, Interrupted

Upcoming lecture series delves into the speakers' personal connections with classic works.

Two freckled, redheaded, orphaned heroines. One has ponytails and a winning and somewhat sly smile, and the other is more serious looking, with almost chestnut colored hair. When the writer Nurit Zarchi was asked to choose between Pippi Longstocking and Anne Shirley as a lecture topic, she said - without thinking about it too much - "Why not both?"

Zarchi is among the most intriguing lecturers in a new series on classic children's books beginning next month at Beit Ariella in Tel Aviv. The other speakers include literary researcher Gidon Tikotzky, who will discuss "The Little Prince"; illustrator Danny Kerman, who will talk about the clever and amusing book, "Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog )" by Jerome K. Jerome, which he translated; the writer, translator and journalist Avirama Golan will talk about "Winnie the Pooh," "Mary Poppins" and "Peter Pan"; writer and editor Yehiam Padan who will discuss the heroes of Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren's books. Pippi is one of her best-known, but other fine classic works of hers were translated into Hebrew, such as "Mio, my Mio" and "The Brothers Lionheart." Yehuda Atlas will devote his lecture to the book "Where the Wild Things Are," by Maurice Sendak; and Benny Hendel will connect A.A. Milne and Shel Silverstein.

Nurit Zarchi - Daniel Tchetchik - 01122011
Daniel Tchetchik

"Beyond the actual works, which have certainly been discussed a lot, and beyond the chronological element, what distinguishes this lecture series is the speaker's intimate connection [to the book]," says Prof. Miri Baruch, who will also lecture in the series. "These are not the best books they know, or in the case of translators, the most important works they translated, but they are the books that they loved the most."

Baruch chose a lesser-known work which is one of her favorites: Patricia MacLachlan's "Sarah, Plain and Tall." The book was also made into a movie and won the Newberry Medal. It is unusual for this series because its heroine is not a girl but a woman. In the book, children must get used to a woman who comes to care for them after their mother dies. The children's father is cold and distant. "It's written lyrically, an amazing book," enthuses Baruch. "And it was a book that gave me a lot of strength because I experienced this story. If I had to choose the best book, this wouldn't be it, but it's the book I connect with more than any other."

A case of manic suppression

Nurit Zarchi is known as the author of children's stories filled with fantasy and magic. It is interesting to hear what she thinks about the beloved classic heroes of children's books. And also which of the two - Pippi or Anne - she prefers. "Both of them represent a different approach, a different culture and century," she says.

Zarchi read "Anne of Green Gables" when she was a child and identified with the protagonist, just as all the girls who read it do. "I was also bad at math and had no manners, just like Anne Shirley," she laughs. She discovered Pippi Longstocking as an adult. She says it is a very complex book: "On the surface it is full of life and magic, but there is something in it that I call manic suppression, suppression that leads to Pippi 'acting out.' It's amusing, but beneath all that there's great misery. Pippi is very worrisome."

While Pippi lives alone with a horse and a monkey, without rules and prohibitions and with a suitcase full of gold coins, Anne has "sweetness" and it is a much more regimented book, displaying obediency to social rules, adds Zarchi. "Anne has found a family. It is not her original family, but they gave her a lot of love and support and she thrived and grew.

"'Anne of Green Gables' is a lyrical book," she continues, "'Pippi Longstocking' is post-modernist. In 'Anne' the gentle soul and the longing for beauty are reflected. 'Pippi Longstocking' is written dispassionately. She has no education, no parents, and no schooling. There is a lot of pretending. How can the girl grow up without parents? She does have money, and that's the whole point. On the other hand, it's also a refreshing approach. Astrid Lindgren pioneered a new genre: the child as a strong heroine. This book has a lot of things that kids would like to have, like strength, power, independence, pleasure - a life without any values other than friendship perhaps. It's very appealing."

What makes these heroines so beloved to generations of children? "Many children feel the girls' loneliness," says Zarchi. "They experience life for the first time and encounter this feeling that many parents ignore, and they identify with these lonely girls and their growth process."

It seems that Zarchi is more inclined toward "Pippi Longstocking," which "is easier to read because it's a newer book. But I read 'Anne of Green Gables' so many times. I can't betray her," she says.

Examining the source

At first glance, Nira Russo, a linguist and author of the "Meaning of Life" column in Yedioth Ahronoth, is a much more unlikely choice for this series than Zarchi. Surprisingly, she will not be discussing food in children's literature, but rather her favorite book, "Little Women."

Russo, it turns out, has been working with children's books for years. It is not academic research, she says, but very personal and dependent on the subject and place. Russo speaks of her trips in the wake of her favorite books and her study of their authors' biographies.

First she visited Concord, the small town outside Boston where Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888 ), the author of the biographical "Little Women," lived. Later on, she went to Cavendish in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942 ) lived, and where "Anne of Green Gables" came to life. There were other trips as well.

Russo says there is nothing like the authentic atmosphere and the real life characters in the Alcott home in Concord. "When you see the house where Laurie lived (Jo's beloved neighbor who eventually marries her sister ) and the surrounding nature, when you understand how she walked to the fish store and what the market looked like, it is fantastic," she says. Russo relates that when she first visited Concord in the late 1970s she was obsessed with "Little Women". She was pregnant and living in Boston - with a lot of free time - so she began researching the history of the house, and she read everything she could find that was related to the Alcott family. That is how she discovered many parallels from real life to the events and characters in the book, and she will talk about this in her upcoming lecture. Russo will analyze the gap between the author's history and its literary depiction.

The Alcott family, Russo says, was an important family, entrenched in the community. The father, Bronson Alcott, was a known philosopher. There were several sisters, and Alcott sought to create Jo in her image. But there is no connection between the idyllic description of the family and the reality.

"This is what fascinated me," explains Russo. "There is Louisa's beautification of their childhood and the dissonance and the gap between the beauty and joy and idylls of 'Little Women' and the gray and harsh life of Louisa May Alcott." Russo refers to it as "the aesthetics of deprivation," and explains, "She made the things she couldn't change look pretty."

So the family patriarch is presented as a philosopher; scatter-brained but a loving father to his daughters. In reality he was a lazy man who couldn't be counted on. He did not support the family and disappeared for months. He did not care about them and left them to live in poverty. In the book, of course, a convincing explanation for the disappearance is provided: He was a courageous soldier, sent to war and even wounded. However, the father did see to his daughters' education.

Russo enjoys debunking myths: "The wonderful and saintly mother was cranky. In the book her death is portrayed as a noble one. But in truth her death was long and she had all the time in the world to blame her parents for the great neglect that led to her illness. Her last days are described in the book as purifying the soul, but in fact she was embittered."

The dissonance did not skip over Alcott's character. "She describes herself in the book as a tomboy, mischievous and happy," says Russo. "But the evidence indicates she was a rather gloomy woman. Poverty and hunger were her lot and she had to work. Her father did encourage her to write and publish her books, but not, heaven forbid, for feminist reasons, but because he wanted the money."

Alcott wrote many books during throughout her life, but the one book she didn't like - "Little Women" - was a best seller. She had to write a sequel, because readers demanded that Jo also get married. Alcott herself never married. "Add countless clashes with the publisher (Little Brown ) and you get the picture," says Russo. According to her, the book was a success primarily because Alcott knew how to tell a story, and because of the huge range of female characters and their development. "At every stage in life, you can find many layers. You don't ever really get away from such a book."