In children's lit, orphans aplenty (National Post, February 23, 2005)

I await the auspicious moment my nine-month old granddaughter realizes her little wooden-paged starter books are for looking at rather than gnawing on. From there, it is but a short step to listening. The only thing I really enjoy in the category of amusing children is reading to them, so I will be Alexa's reading fool when she's up for it.

Thinking years ahead with a view to advanced bonding, I've considered stories in which a child's relationship with a grandparent or elder is featured. Searching among the classics I loved as a girl, I turned up a surprising number -- including Heidi by Johanna Spyri (1881), Pollyanna by Eleanor Portman (1913) and Anne of Green Gables (1908).

Why, I began to wonder, was I (and countless other little girls) so taken with books in which the parents were dead? And why, for that matter, are countless millions of modern children devouring a Harry Potter series based on the same ghoullish premise?

Heidi, Pollyanna and Anne supply a clue. Each is an orphan who comes as an unwelcome responsibility, a disruptive force in the austere lives of reluctant guardians. Heidi is callously dumped by her aunt at the hut of her grandfather, a simple carpenter in the Swiss Alps. Pollyanna, a small town Midwesterner, is grudgingly taken in by a wealthy aunt. Anne is mistakenly sent to live in Prince Edward Island with an elderly brother (Matthew) and sister (Marilla) who expected a boy as farm help.

All three girls ingratiate themselves with their benefactors by offering unconditional affection. The relationships quickly turn reciprocal: The elders allay the children's fears, while the children's vitality taps into the dormant sap of life in the elders, nudging them to renewed involvement in communal life.

In Heidi, the grandfather is a misanthrope who's led a near-hermetic existence. Heidi's irrepressible gregariousness gently pushes him to leave his hut and rejoin the parish. (Oddly, I remembered the bread and cheese Heidi ate every day, I remembered wild Peter and the goats, and the mattress of straw in the little hut's loft, but I had forgotten that in large part Heidi is an evangelical Christian tract.)

Similarly in Pollyanna, whose name has morphed into a derisive epithet for stubborn optimists, the proud Aunt Polly needs to be released into the warmth of a good man's love. Pollyanna, with her "glad game" -- in which even the most depressing turn of events is rationalized away by the conjuring of far worse possibilities -- is the one who thaws the aunt's heart. Anne performs the same trick on Matthew and Marilla: Her passion for self-improvement releases the pair from crippling self-consciousness.

All children fear abandonment -- of which there is no worse kind than the death of one's parents. Why then, have young readers been drawn to these books for more than a century?

It is because children have a deeply felt need to confront their deepest terror. Subconsciously, they want to imagine a back-up plan -- without the betrayal of imagining a new mother and father. Skipping a generation satisfies the need to ponder a fruitful alliance that nevertheless leaves the parents' memory inviolate.

It would be hard to write anything like Heidi in today's era, when children are nannied by professional platoons of teachers, social workers and therapists. Heidi, Pollyanna and Anne, products of a hardier, less self-indulgent era, would never have had any time for that. Their stories begin with a sad premise, but ultimately are motivational tales of triumphant survival.

These heroines must arouse confused feelings in modern feminists. The virtues embodied by the trio are exactly those that women have been taught to scorn for half a century. They are good, kind, cheerful, dutiful, attentive to the needs of others, scrupulously moral and even self-sacrificing when necessary. Still role models after all these years.

Alexa, are you listening?
© National Post 2005