“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” Anne of Green Gables
“Why Google when you can speculate?” Marc Maron
Alright. I can admit when I’m wrong. I’m not one of these chaps who always has to be right or have the last word on a topic. So let me say right here and now that I was wrong about “Anne of Green Gables”. Completely wrong, and completely surprised by it. I was charmed by it, and am SERIOUSLY considering reading another one in the series. Am I forgiven? Can we still be friends?
I find your silence disturbing.
Let me back up a bit.
I first heard of “Anne of Green Gables” when I was in Grade 5. I was probably 11, the same age that Anne was when she came to live with Marilla and Matthew, and the CBC had produced a 4 hour mini-series starring Richard Farnsworth and Colleen Dewhurst. There was “buzz” in my classroom (particularly among the girls), and when I got home my parents wanted us all to sit down “as a family” and watch it. I guess I must have agreed to watch some of it, because when I think of Matthew and Marilla, I can’t help but think of Richard Farnsworth and Colleen Dewhurst in those roles, but I don’t think I lasted more than 10 minutes. I think I declared the whole thing “lame” and possibly even “girly” and excused myself to go play with some G.I. Joes in my room. It didn’t matter to me that the mini-series would go on to be the highest rated show in Canadian broadcast history.
That was my first experience with poor old Anne Shirley, but it wouldn’t be my last.
It wasn’t long after I started going out with this girl that I found out that “Anne of Green Gables” was one of her favourite series. Now reader, remember: my only real experience with this whole “Anne” business was about 10 minutes in 1985, and we’re talkin’ 1999 now. You’d think I’d just leave well enough alone, but I couldn’t. I guess when I like someone, I like to tease them about stuff, and this seemed as good a thing as any to tease her about.
A few weeks later, the library I was working in at the time had a sewer backup in the basement, where we happened to have our children’s collection. It was truly awful, and we were all called in extra on a Saturday and Sunday to try to salvage as much of the collection as possible before the cleaning crews came in. Looking back on it, it didn’t seem very safe. We weren’t wearing masks or even gloves. What the hell?
Well, anyway, the entire row of Lucy Maude Montgomery books were covered in shit. Completely unsalvagable. Her Windy Poplars could have been renamed “Windy Pooplars”, House of Dreams was more of a nightmare, and Rainbow Valley was only one colour that day.
It was sad to see so many classics get tossed, I’ll admit. I mean, I’m not a MONSTER here. But when I met up with my girlfriend later on that day, I couldn’t resist telling her the fate of our entire Avonlea collection.
(Now I can’t say for sure those were my exact words. We’re talking 15 years ago, but it was something along those lines. What’s wrong with me?) She was not impressed.
I knew Anne meant a lot to her when I got invited down to her parent’s cottage for the first time, and they actually named their cottage after Green Gables. Her last name rhymed with “Gable” so it was a combination of their name and the LMM reference and I sort of felt bad for teasing her so much. I was being a real Gilbert.
I had no idea at the time that “Anne of Green Gables” was such a big thing. Did you know that there is an “Anne of Green Gables” theme park in P.E.I. and that pilgrims, known locally as “Greenies” travel from as far away as Japan to visit it as well as the farm-house “Green Gables” on which the series was inspired? Speaking of Japan, “Anne of Green Gables” is frickin’ HUGE over there, and Anne is given “god-like” status among many Japanese school children. They call her Akage No An (Red Haired Anne). Young Japanese women will show up in P.E.I. with their hair dyed red and in pigtails, just to “be like Anne”. Some young Japanese couples will even make the trek to get married there. I’m not joking! This is a real thing. If you don’t believe me, watch this short CBC video about it. The part where the two young Japanese girls are geeking out about seeing Anne’s bedroom is delightful. The book is still in print after a hundred years of uninterrupted publishing, and now they are trying to market it to the “Pretty Little Liars” and “Gossip Girl” crowd by “modernizing” Anne’s look. Is this necessary?
I have never been to P.E.I. but my Mom has a kindred friend who’s daughter married a geniune P.E.I. potato farmer. They have an actual potato farm on P.E.I. (how great is that?) and my Mom has visited them many times. Through my Mom’s visits, we have ended up with a few bits of Anne memorabilia over the years in our house. Aside from the infamous “P.E.I. Mussel Shirts”, there is a straw hat with Anne-Red pigtails kicking around somewhere, and I think there is a little “Anne themed” jewerly box. There could be other random stuff too.
So even though Anne was never really out of my life completely, I guess I came back to Anne last summer, when an anonymous donation at work included a copy of “Anne of Green Gables” and its first sequel, “Anne of Avonlea”. I was about to put them aside for our booksale (they weren’t in great shape), but instead I left them in my office, taking it as a sign that the time was right to finally read the book that I had resisted for almost 30 years. And they were the classic covers, I’ll have you know. I wasn’t drawn in by any of this “sexy Anne” business. She’s 11 for God’s sake! Also around this time, the term “kindreds” came up in conversation and I asked my friend where that term came from and she said, “Anne of Green Gables”. I couldn’t seem to shake Anne at all. She was everywhere. It didn’t help that in October that same “kindred” posted the following pic to twitter:
Okay, I know you can’t really call anything in a 30-year-old miniseries based on a 100-year-old novel “spoiler material” but JESUS, SPOILER! Am I right? I mean I think I kinda knew Matthew bit the big one at the end, I’m not sure why, but this pic leaves no doubt in my mind. So when he started taking his “heart pills” part-way through the book I was like “don’t bother, man.”
But despite all that I sat down on Christmas Eve, after all the presents were wrapped and the breakfast casserole was in the fridge, and read the words, “Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down in to a little hollow…” and for the next three weeks I was completely drawn into Anne’s world.
I loved it.
My first surprise was how lengthy it was. My copy here is over 300 pages. I was thinking I’d knock this thing off in a night or two, but not so. I savoured the language and took my time with it, and I wanted to get back to it whenever I wasn’t reading it. I found myself waking up early and sticking my light on to read before I got out of bed. I can’t even tell you the last time a book grabbed me like that. If I up early at all, I’m using surfing on the iPad or tweeting or something, but Anne took precedence. I was also impressed with the quality of the writing, the description of the nature scenes and the care to detail LMM took to paint a scene for the reader. Let me present to you this:
“The night was clear and frosty, all ebony of shadow and silver of snowy slope; big stars were shining over the silent fields; here and there the dark pointed firs stood up with snow powdering their branches and the wind whistling through them.”
Don’t you want to just get lost in those woods for a while?
I can hear you whisper, “It’s a classic, dummy!” I know, but lots of things have been granted “classic” status that I hate, so what is it about this book? I think I just loved Anne, and the way that she was able to take what was a pretty crappy childhood and found the adventure in it. She could rename an ordinary grove “the White Way of Delight” or an unremarkable pond, “The Lake of Shining Waters” and bring you along with it. She would make you want to believe in it. She was an eternal optimist but also a great worrier. I could relate to her. I loved that her main thing was to make connections with people, and to suss out whether they were “kindred spirits”, “bosom friends” or not. Sure, she was a little dramatic and maybe a little hard to take sometimes, but how could you stifle such a spirit? I guess I fall more into #teammarilla than #teammatthew in that regard. I loved Anne, but I knew she had to be reigned in somehow. Matthew seemed to be to be a bit of a clueless boob. He loved Anne in his own way, and the scenes where he became befuddled when we tried to buy dresses and things for Anne are comedy gold, but he never really seemed to know what was going on. I guess his debilitating shyness played a factor in how he interacted with everyone, not just Anne.
Speaking of the language, though, there were some usages that are worth a mention. Being over 100 years old, there were some turns of phrase that stuck out. Something simple like saying “out-of-doors” in stead of “outdoors” was a delight, but I found Marilla “ejaculating” this and “ejaculating” that quite worrisome. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have to do the laundry in Green Gables. Luckily, Marilla’s ejaculations seemed to subside partway through the book. I don’t think Matthew ejaculated once, at least not in front of anyone. He did spend a lot of time out in the fields, though, didn’t he?
And what about that adoption? Is that how they did it a hundred years ago? You just let it be known that you want a kid and some friend of a friend who knows someone sticks an orphan on the train for you? It seems a bit……sketchy. And they screwed it up too. Marilla and Matthew wanted a boy, but they got Anne. And what’s the deal with Marilla and Matthew? Can brothers and sisters even adopt together? I’d like to see the paperwork on that. I will say that I am glad they didn’t “draw out” the whole “will we keep her, or will we wont?” business for longer than a chapter or two. I mean, come on. She’s just a child for goodness sake. (and plus I sort of knew they kept her, thanks to those twitter spoilers. You know who you are.)
Partway through the book, I had a terrible thought and I raised it with my wife. (You may have gathered at this point that my girlfriend in ’99 did in fact marry me and her love of Anne of Green Gables did not abate. In fact, when we visited her Aunt and Uncle north of Toronto, she took me around to a bunch of places where they filmed the miniseries. Yeah, I know. They didn’t film everything in P.E.I. Did a little part of you just die?).
So I asked her, “I’m dreading the scenes where Anne gets her period. Is there some awkward dialogue between Anne and Marilla or God forbid Anne and Matthew on the topic?”
“No, Trevor. It’s not that kind of book,” was her response, and I was happy to hear it. But it must have happened at some point. I mean she’s 11 when the book begins, and when it ends she’s in her late teens. You’d think this would come up at some point, right? Maybe there’s some hidden meaning in all the “change of seasons” talk that I’m not picking up on? I’m not sure why I am obsessing over Anne Shirley’s period, but I think I would have liked a scene of some good old-fashioned “period talk”. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Another observation: what the hell was up with that first teacher, Mr. Phillips? He was TOTALLY putting the moves on Prissy Andrews, listening to her Latin and preening over her recitations and whatnot. I mean, is that how they do things down there in Avonlea? It’s not right, and I was relieved to see that he had “moved on” after the year was up. All the girls were crying over the loss, but I was all, “See ya, perv!” and welcomed the new teacher Miss Stacey with open arms. There wasn’t any such tom-foolery under Miss Stacey’s watch, I can tell you that. But to be fair to Mr. Phillips, some blame needs to be laid sy Prissy’s parents’ feet. I mean, if you’re going to name your daughter Prissy, you’ve gotta know that at some point she’s going to be diddling her teacher. That’s how it goes.
Another thing I liked: when Anne found her first kindred, Diana, she pretty much stayed her kindred throughout the whole book. (I mean there was the little bit of misunderstanding between Anne and Diana’s mom that was soon resolved, but other than that, Diana was a good and true friend). I kept thinking, “Oh that Diana, she’s going to backstab Anne any minute now.” or “Damn it Anne, you are too trusting.” I guess I’m just conditioned by modern pop culture that you can’t really trust anyone (I’m jaded, I guess) and I was pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t really any real evil in Avonlea. It was refreshing.
I also liked that the whole “introducing of Gilbert” didn’t shift the focus off of Anne finding her way in the world. As soon as he showed up and called her “carrots” I thought “Oh here we go. The love interest. I’m going to have to sit through a bunch of Logan/Veronica bullshit”, but it never really happened. Anne made up her mind about Gilbert early on, and stuck to her guns. Even at the very end, where Gilbert (SPOILER!) gives up the Avonlea school posting so that Anne can stay at Green Gables and look after Marilla, Anne doesn’t really gush over him. She realizes he’s okay and they decide to be “good friends” and leave it at that. Now, I’m guessing he comes back in the other books and who knows, maybe he and Anne even “get it on”, but Gilbert never really becomes the focus of the story. It’s not called Gilbert of Green Gables, after all.
“I think your Gilbert Blythe is handsome, but I think he’s very bold. It isn’t good manners to wink at a strange girl”.
A quick word on Gilbert. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He certainly isn’t in the “sexual predator” range like that creep Mr. Phillips. He’s a little older than the other kids, on account of being out in Alberta with his sick dad for a few years, and he’s probably a little bored. He also is a bit of a “ladies’ man” I think, and his way of communicating his affection and interest in someone is to tease them. I can relate to that. And bugging the ladies is what its all about in grade school, am I right people? He just chose the wrong girl to “eff” with when he “effed” with Anne. I love that she just took her slate and cracked it over his head and pretty much never ever talked to him again, even when he rescued her from the stream years later. To Gilbert’s credit, he owned up to teasing Anne right away, and Anne carried the grudge past the point of reasonableness. I’m sure they all work it out after a few “bends in the road”. (Not a euphenism).
“Sitting down on a chair by the table, flinging her arms out upon it, and burying her face in them, she proceeded to cry stormily.”
Now I know I don’t have to cry over a piece of culture for it to be good, and in fact crying over an entertainment is a bit of a rarity for me. (Yes, I cry every time at the end of Field of Dreams, and I DID cry on that beach in Norway with The Doctor and Rose, but I wouldn’t say crying was a defining character trait of mine or anything).
I will tell you that I actually cried in two separate scenes as I read them, and I’m not ashamed to tell you which ones they were.
The first one was when Anne mistakenly put liniment oil instead of vanilla into the cake she baked especially for the new minister and his wife, Mr and Mrs. Allan. Now to be fair, this wasn’t really Anne’s fault. I mean, how could she know Marilla would stick her liniment oil in an old vanilla bottle and not relabel it? I mean, COME ON MARILA. What the hell? Well, any way, you can imagine that the cake tasted awful and Anne was so looking forward to making a good impression and it went all to shit and she tore up to her room in tears. Anne’s face in buried in the pillows and she hears a presence at her door which she thinks is Marilla and she starts telling her how awful and embarrassed she is but it turns out it was Mrs. Allan, the minister’s wife, who came upstairs instead.
“My dear little girl, you musn’t cry like this,” she said, genuinely disturbed by Anne’s tragic face. “Why it’s all just a funny mistake that anyone might make.”
“Oh, no. It takes me to make such a mistake,” said Anne forlornly. “And I wanted to have that cake so nice for you, Mrs. Allan”.
“Yes, I know, dear. And I assure you I appreciate your kindness and thoughtfulness just as much as if it had turned out all right. Now, you mustn’t cry any more, but come down with me and show me your flower garden. Miss Cuthbert tells me you have a little plot all your own. I want to see it, for I’m very much interested in flowers.”
I don’t know why, but this scene really got to me. The simple act of kindness on Mrs. Allan’s part made her a kindred right there on the spot. And it is followed up by that great quotation: “Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it?”
The second scene that did me in was when Anne was about to leave Green Gables for the Academy and she said to Marilla:
“I’m not a bit changed—not really. I’m only just pruned down and branched out. The real me—back here—is just the same. It won’t make a bit of difference where I go or how much I change outwardly; at heart I shall always be your little Anne, who will love you and Matthew and dear Green Gables more and better every day of her life.”
I know I am a cupcake sometimes, but I couldn’t help but think of my own daughter, red-haired and sometimes pig-tailed, eventually leaving home as an adult and thinking that with all her changes (so many so far, so many still to come) she will always be that little sweet little baby that we brought home from the hospital only two days old, and the sweet little girl that she is now, so impossibly filled with love and spirit. And as parents (and aunts and uncles and god moms and good friends) you just hope you have a positive influence on this little life so that when it comes time for them to go out into the world, they might look back and say something similar to you. So yeah, Anne of Green Gables isn’t a kids book. It’s not even for kids. It’s for everyone.
One last thing: When I was done reading the book, I asked my wife if she had ever read the rest of the series or just the first one. I was surprised by her response.
“Oh, I’ve never read any of the books. I just watched the miniseries over and over as a kid and all the sequels and the Road to Avonlea”.
Well, wouldn’t you know! You never know what you’ll find when you come around that bend in the road.