Thursday, May 5, 2016

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables of Green Gables
"Yes, it's red," she said resignedly.  "Now you see why I can't be perfectly happy.  Nobody could who had red hair.  I don't mind the other things so much--the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness.  I can imagine them away.  I can imagine that I have a beautiful rose leaf complexion and lovely starry violet eyes.  But I cannot imagine that red hair away.  I do my best.  I think to myself, 'Now my hair is a glorious black, black as the raven's wing.'  But all the time I know it is plain red, and it breaks my heart.  It will be my lifelong sorrow.  I read of a girl once in a novel who had a lifelong sorrow, but it wasn't red hair.  Her hair was pure gold rippling back from her alabaster brow.  What is an alabaster brow?  I never could find out.  Can you tell me?"

"Well, now, I'm afraid I can't," said Matthew, who was getting a little dizzy.  He felt as he had once felt in his rash youth when another boy had enticed him on the merry-go-round at a picnic.

There's nothing I love more than reading books about the places I go when I travel.  When I took a recent spring break trip to Canada (where it was way too cold for right-thinking people take spring break trips) I decided I had to read Anne of Green Gables, the literary pride of Prince Edward Island.

First of all, Prince Edward Island is awesome.  It's easy to see why Anne, the novel's impulsive, imaginative hero, would be so captivated by her new home: it's pleasant and bucolic, but the abundance of red clay at the farms and red sand on the beaches gives it an otherworldly kind of feeling.  It certainly doesn't look or feel like anywhere else.  Green Gables, the house where Anne is taken by accident to the elderly couple Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (who wanted to adopt a boy), is a real place, and you can tour it--or you could, if you were smart enough not to visit it in what is essentially Canadian winter.

Matthew and Marilla are charmed by Anne, who talks a mile a minute about the things she imagines.  And to be fair, Anne is pretty charming.  Her overactive imagination is the optimism of someone who's had a hard life as an orphan, a way of shaping the world into something more palatable.  Green Gables, though she sets about immediately renaming local landmarks to suit her sense of whimsy (a local pond becomes, for instance, the Lake of Shining Waters), is the first place commensurate with Anne's capacity for wonder.  The no-nonsense Marilla, while secretly enamored by Anne, endeavors to rein in her impulses, which result in some reliably amusing scrapes.  One of my favorites involves the twelve-year old Anne, permitted to throw a tea party, accidentally substitutes wine for cherry cordial and gets her best friend roaringly drunk.

Eventually, Anne becomes a young woman.  At sixteen, she graduates from high school and--oh, Canada--immediately becomes a schoolteacher herself.  Over the course of the novel, she becomes a part of the Cuthbert household, and ingratiates herself into the society of her small P.E.I. town, and becomes generally loved by everyone.  There are few very high stakes--although Montgomery manages to wring a great deal of unexpected pathos out of a bittersweet ending--but the small niceties of domestic Canadian life prove to be surprisingly compelling, because Anne is a compelling character.

Many women--only women, honestly, but only a few of them Canadian--have told me that these books meant a great deal to them as a child.  Why is that?  I enjoyed the book a lot, but something about Anne, even a hundred years and fifteen hundred miles removed, continues to resound for young girls.

1 comment:

Brittany said...

So I was totally gifted an Anne of Green Gables box set as a girl by an older female relative who was very very moved/touched/etc by these books. I was a voracious reader, and I do remember reading them, but I remember nothing about the plot or character (I didn't even know it was set in Canada?) and I vaguely remember Older Female Relative being disappointed in me (this plot was repeated with Black Beauty and the Secret Garden).

I really wonder if it was popular just because there weren't many young adult novels around (Randy and I were just talking about this yesterday, and although my children's literature history isn't particularly strong, making me wonder if I should in fact take The History of Children's Literature, a real class offered by UIUC, I don't think there were a lot of hoppin' novels in the early 1900s about tween girls), but its perennial popularity doesn't make sense with that argument because now we have tons of awesome YA novels.