Johanna Spyri’s Birthplace

Zurich is a great place to spend the summer.  Plenty of beautiful weather and fun sights within a short bus or train ride away.  I sort of forget how close I am to everything here.

I was dining with Chris’ family, who lives a town or two away, and they were asking how I liked living so far away from my family.  “Far? It’s not that bad actually, only 2 hours away,” I said.  But then, they reminded me that in two hours, they could be in 4 different countries. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Since everything is closed in Switzerland on Sunday (and I mean everything…try getting groceries or going out for dinner that day), Chari took me to the town of Hirzel, just a few minutes outside of Zurich.

It’s a quaint little town with little to recommend it aside from stunning views of rolling hills and occasional glimpses of the Alps in the distance…if that’s your sort of thing.  Really, it’s common fare in these parts.

What makes it truly unique to this American book lover is its connection with Johanna Spyri, the author of the beloved children’s book, Heidi.  Spyri was born in Hirzel in 1827, and she spent a large portion of her life there and in Zurich.  Her dad was the local doctor, and they lived in this home, which is pictured in an 1822 image and its modern, renovated form.

We couldn’t go in the house, since it’s currently a private residence.  But, we could go in Spyri’s old schoolhouse, where she learned to read and most importantly, to write.  The building is now a small museum, devoted to Spyri’s life and writing, but it’s only open on Sundays for two hours, and not on holidays (something I probably need to elaborate on sometime, since Swiss holidays are a little unusual).  So, we made it there during the special time when the stars were properly in alignment to visit.  It helps to have a native Swiss-German speaker in your home who can call around and find these things out for you (thanks Chris!).Since the town is so small, it was a joy to also see Spyri’s church, the one she went to as a child and where her grandfather was a pastor.  It’s literally across the street from her home and a few feet away from the schoolhouse…ahh, small village life.  Rereading Heidi as an adult and as a committed Christ follower, I’m picking up on the deep faith message in the book.  I don’t know how in the world I missed it before, but I suppose you lose it a bit with the Shirley Temple version. 

Interestingly, Spyri strayed from her parents’ faith in her early adult years, but after a serious bout of depression when she was 25, she turned back to Jesus for help.  A prodigal child herself, it’s incredible to read about the prodigal children she’s woven into her book.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Re: Shirley Temple as Heidi.
    When we returned from Switzerland we got a copy of the movie and settled in. My husband kept gripping about how weird the story line was, and viewed through modern eyes, it really was quite alarming. Having never read the book, I thought I’d take a pass on it; your comments has changed my thinking though.

    I am so happy to have another shot at visiting Switzerland through your posts!

    AL: It’s been a long time since I saw the Shirley Temple version, but from I can recall, I know that this book is much more timeless than the movie. It touches on some very universal themes that any generation could appreciate. If you get around to reading it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! And, of course, you should know, the book is ALWAYS better than the movie. =)

  2. I’m just now reading your Switzerland posts…this was very interesting about Heidi….I had absolutely NO idea there was a faith message in the story….I don’t believe I’ve ever read it, even as a kid. Just saw one or two movie versions of the story. I’ll be adding it to my list for my next visit to the bookstore – thanks!

    AL: Don’t feel bad about missing the faith message. I’d forgotten about it as well. Isn’t it amazing how much the Hollywood versions can stick in our heads, and we forget about the deep faith messages? I worry a bit about what the Narnia films are doing to the messages that were so deeply associated with the Narnia books.

  3. Just wondering what your source is for Johanna Spyri’s religious experiences. The BBC is currently playing “A Gift for Heidi” – we watched a bit of it on BBC IPlayer and noted the apparent Roman Catholic identity of the characters. But we’d got the impression this was not how the original Heidi book was, and it looks like Johanna’s grandfather was a Reformed (?) Church pastor and her mother described as pietist (something I’d asssociated with Lutheranism).

    AL: I admit, much of my source material comes from the locals I talked to, including my hosts, and the resources available at the Spyri musuem, none of which I have available at the moment. However, the Reformed church is worth a little exploration, as it’s a unique branch of the reformation, starting with Switzerland’s reformer Zwingli http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_Reformed_Church . Perhaps a biography of Sypri (in book form) would include more detail on her faith. Or maybe a good one needs to be written!


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