Book Review: Pippi Longstocking author’s journals paint a vivid picture of the Second World War
ASTRID Lindgren is best known for her Pippi Longstocking children’s books, which have sold in their millions all over the world. Pippi’s irreverent attitude immediately appealed to children. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, said that he based his iconic character Lisbeth Salander on her.
In 1939, Lindgren was a 32-year-old office worker living in Stockholm with her husband and two children, a middle-class family living a happy and comfortable life. When the Second World War broke out she followed its progress with a passion, writing a diary into which she pasted reports and articles from the newspapers. From the first months of the “phony war”, to the incredible bravery of her Finnish neighbours, her diary provides a unique view of the rising conflict as seen from a neutral country. On one side the Finns are fighting a brutal war against the Russians, and on the other Norway becomes a Nazi puppet state presided over by the notorious Quisling.
It is shocking to see the war through Lindgren’s eyes, where the Nazis seem like a better option than the Communists hammering on Finland’s flimsy defensive lines. Surprisingly, in the early days of the war Lindgren has rather a low opinion of the British war effort. She feels the British should be doing more to help Finland and Norway, even as Sweden officially refuses to become embroiled. “There’s a lot of bitterness about Britain and its feeble assistance,” Lindgren notes in May, 1940. She is constantly amazed by the indomitable spirit of the Finns, fighting a much larger army and miraculously holding them at bay, and the dogged endurance of the Norwegians who suffer terribly under Nazi occupation.
Rationing plays a big part in Lindgren’s life as she compares the generous rations meted out in Sweden to meagre supplies in other countries. There seems to be a large measure of guilt on her part, as time and again she notes how lucky Swedes are to be warm and well-fed even in the depths of the harsh winters of the early war years. As she writes about her everyday life, she notes that her children still have birthday cakes and presents while children in Greece are facing starvation. She writes: “Why, our rations are pure gluttony, though we think them stingy.”
As well as getting her information from newspapers and radio, Lindgren’s job at the Postal Control Division gave her access to scraps of news from all over Europe. She steamed open envelopes to read the contents, blacking out anything that mentioned military locations or classified information. Although her work was confidential, it didn’t stop her copying parts of letters into her diary or musing on the news of the war the correspondence often contained. A letter written by a Norwegian woman in 1943 infuriates Lindgren with her claim that everything in Norway is good and the Germans aren’t getting in the way. “I’ve never heard anyone else make such grotesque assertions,” writes Lindgren. Being able to draw on the voices of so many different people’s hopes and fears enables Lindgren to paint a vivid and intimate picture of ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Although she had yet to express any literary ambitions, it is clear from her diaries that Lindgren was a talented writer. She had an eye for detail, and a sharp sense of humour amidst all the horrors she wrote about. She started to entertain her daughter, and then her daughter’s friends, with stories featuring Pippi Longstocking, and in 1945 the first Pippi book was published and became an immediate classic of children’s literature.
Lindgren’s diaries were published posthumously, which is a pity as she deserved to know they would be received with critical acclaim. In the Swedish version there are facsimile copies of the articles that she cut and pasted into her diary. In this, the first English version, there is just a short description of them, which is an odd omission.
Also, the translator has replaced Lindgren’s references to England with Britain, an unnecessary modernising of a term that was universally used and understood to mean Britain at the time.
Nevertheless, in the midst of a world gone mad, Lindgren’s diaries show a compassionate and curious woman trying to fathom the horrors of war through her writing, and leaving behind a wonderful insight into life during a global conflict.
A World Gone Mad – The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, Translated by Sarah Death is published by Pushkin Press, priced £18.99