Way out at the end of a tiny little town was an old overgrown garden, and in the garden was an old house, and in the house lived Pippi Longstocking. She was nine years old, and she lived there all alone. She had no mother and no father….“Don’t you worry about me,” [Pippi said], “I’ll always come out on top.”
— Lindgren, 1950
Long before I knew them as literature, the books of my childhood communicated to me one deep message: people survive. If I close my eyes, I can still see the interior of the small library at my elementary school where I was drawn to the orange-and-yellow dustjacket of Pippi Longstocking. And how strange to realize that the ink-and-paper perfume of the Hutchinson County Library is grafted to some primal part of my brain, bound to the memory of discovering Charlotte’s Web. Decades later, I still remember the tactile comfort of running my fingers over the thready binding of the book containing “Hansel and Gretel.”
Within these pages, I found a way to name the chaos in the near-constant churn of my home. The orphan, the hero, the trickster, the monster, the quest, the journey through light and into darkness — these archetypes and patterns ordered the narratives that helped me make sense of the world. My friends loved the one-dimensional, too-sweet heroines of the movies, like Disney’s Cinderella or Snow White, but I turned away from them, back into books. There, the stories worked like a spell, promising me that words matter, and that imagination can take you away from painful reality.
These stories drew me in because I had that “shock of recognition” Melville describes, when you see your experience reflected to you in another’s words. Although my mother hadn’t died or abandoned me in the middle of a forest, my parents’ ambivalence, their seeming detachment from the responsibilities of raising four children, felt cut from the same narrative cloth as the attitude of parents in the books I treasured.
If my life were a series, like my copies of Pippi’s adventures, Book Two would begin right around the time my parents got divorced. Readers would be familiar by now with their operatic screaming matches, with scenes of me finding my father passed out in the front yard, and with my mother’s refusal to get out of bed, signaling her deeper slide into depression. (There’s so much that’s dismal in Book One that honestly, it’s best to just skim it.)
Book Two opens at the Family Medicine Clinic where Dr. Ingham, drawing on his pipe like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, is asking fourth-grade me why I wanted to see him.
“Because I feel like I’m going to die. I feel my heart a lot to see if it’s still beating. And I worry that my parents will die, or my sisters and brother, or my Meemaw will die. Or that the world will end because God is mad.”
I can still remember the smell of that pipe, all these years later. The soothing applejack tobacco that ringed a halo above his balding head. His voice, deep and sonorous as a Sunday preacher, answered, “Oh Shanna, I don’t think you’ll die for a long time and I’m pretty sure none of your family will die for a long time either. I’m your doctor and you’re pretty healthy, so I’m not worried.”
I remember exhaling loudly, truly and utterly relieved to hear this news.
“Send your mom in here for a minute, and then wait for her in the waiting room,” he said.
He told my mother that he was worried about my constant stomach aches (later revealed to the result of an ulcer), and prescribed me the same chalky liquid given to nervous petroleum executives in my hometown. He also told my mother it’d be okay, if I became particularly agitated, to occasionally give me a quarter of one of her yellow five-milligram Valium.
The following books of my life will introduce you to all kinds of characters as my home life swirls with the volatility of the relationships forming and fracturing around my parents. Some of those characters will perform acts, when they’re alone with me in the dark, that aren’t easy to describe because they’re the kind that make you wonder why no one ever went to jail. Inferential readers will note the subtext within the shadows and whispers and crying.
What the books will show is 10-year-old me trying to read the cooking instructions for spaghetti so that I can feed my three younger siblings; my parents are always too distracted by their entanglements with those other characters, and don’t make time to make dinner. My mother will chase one entanglement all the way to Wyoming and be absent from an entire book. My father, who spends most of his time at Red’s Lounge and only comes home after two a.m., also doesn’t get much page time.
The spaghetti scene works as a vignette of neglect. At 10, I don’t really understand how to time the boiling water, so the noodles aren’t fully cooked, but my siblings spare my feelings. “It’s really good,” they say, because they’re hungry and because it’s what we have. The noodles crackle as they try to chew them. I’ve put food coloring in their glasses of water so that drinking will feel like something fancy.
These middle books take a turn away from darkness into Pippi-like scenes of ingenuity. I learn to forge each of my parents’ signatures, signing school documents so that my siblings can get vaccinations, school lunches, and other services that require parental permission. I learn how to use a wrench to turn the water back on at the meter after the city shuts it off. An extended scene shows how I deepen my voice to sound like my mother when I call the electric company.
Because I like to read, I know how to create stories to explain why the bills aren’t being paid, stories that are compelling enough for the electric company to keep the power on.
The idea that Pippi might serve as a model and muse for real-life girls who must try to find a way to “come out on top” of trauma is an idea echoed by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Swedish author Stieg Larsson, in one of his rare interviews, said that Pippi Longstocking was the inspiration for Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s main character. Of Pippi, Larsson wondered, “What would she be like as an adult?” As Nathaniel Rich of Rolling Stone writes, “Instead of being endowed with physical strength, Salander is a hacker magician. With a few keystrokes on her laptop, she can access every piece of information in the world.”
It was easy for me to see Pippi within Lisbeth Salander and to see Lisbeth Salander as a version of myself, both characters a study of female strength and ingenuity. When I give books to students, friends, and colleagues, I am often giving them a message I think will help them. I choose the books and stories because they are freighted with models of hope.