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On the Death of Astrid Lindgren

03/11/02 12:00AM By Philip Baruth

There are a lot of things I don't understand about death and dying, but maybe the thing I understand least is the way that some deaths seem to hit you deep and hard in your soul, and others -- even though you know that they're horrible and bleak and undeserved -- other deaths just don't penetrate in quite the same way.

The night John Lennon was shot, my friends all piled into a car and took off on a long soul-searching expedition to nowhere because they were all really hurting over it. I followed them to the car but I didn't get in, because although I loved Lennon's music and I hated the guy who shot him, his death seemed to exist outside of me somehow. On the other hand, the night John Belushi died -- John Belushi, this beautiful evil comic giant of a man -- I had to leave the party where I heard the news, because the thought of all that talent dying so young made me too angry and dislocated to enjoy myself.

The reason I bring all of this up is that on the 28th of this past January, Astrid Lindgren died. She was the author of a staggering number of award-winning children's books, but she was best known for creating Pippi Longstocking, the strongest girl in the world. I was surprised by how much Lindgren's death affected me. Lindgren was 94, so it wasn't the same as with Belushi's death, that feeling of wasted promise. She once said this about dying: "I don't mind dying, I'll gladly do that. But not right now. I need to clean the house first."

I guess what mostly bothered me about Lindgren's death was this: although she is perhaps the most widely read and celebrated author Sweden has ever produced, and one of the world's most prolific authors in general, she never won the Nobel Prize. Maybe it was because what she wrote was primarily for children. Maybe it was because the Nobel Committee is based in Sweden, and they didn't want to seem biased.

The only thing certain is that now it's too late.

So I'd like to make a brief case for awarding Lindgren the Nobel Prize posthumously, and that solely on the basis of one character, Pippi Longstocking. Lindgren understood one thing extremely well -- children are suspicious of books that seek primarily to instruct, and rightly so. As an orphan, Pippi rules her own world: she has the strength of ten men and leather satchels full of gold coins, and she does exactly as she pleases and is never punished for it. There's never any final reversal in which Pippi eventually learns the need for societal control.

Even Max, in Where the Wild Things Are, eventually voyages home to his room and his supper and a realization that his mother was right all along. But not Pippi, never Pippi.

And in this way, I think Lindgren was not writing children's literature, or adult literature, but something else, something brilliant and shocking and all her own. In a word, she was a genius, and I might have had it wrong all this time, but I thought that's what the Nobel Prizes were supposed to be all about.

--Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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