Tuesday, September 8, 2009

L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables
by L. M. Montgomery
Recommended Ages: 10+

Between 1909 and 1939, Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote seven books about an imaginative, talkative, high-spirited heroine named Anne Shirley, beginning with this one. Set in the tiny years of the 20th century, in the tiny Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, on a farm near the (fictitious) tiny town of Avonlea, Anne of Green Gables is the most popular book in the series. In its first hundred years of existence, it has become firmly established as a classic of children's literature. And no wonder. It is pure joy to read. From the first moment she appears, Anne is a delightful companion for the imagination of any child, or any adult who still has one.

When we first meet Anne, she is a tiny, thin, pale orphan with bright red hair in braids. Sweet-natured, cheerful, vivacious - well, let's be honest, she's downright chatty - Anne has an eye for beauty and a vibrant inner life full of quirky imaginings. But she's had a rough first eleven years or so. Bounced from one foster family to another, each of whom treated her as hired help, she has at last landed in a bleak, city orphanage in her native Nova Scotia.

Along come a shy old bachelor farmer named Matthew Cuthbert and his spinster sister Marilla. They decide to adopt a boy to help them around the farm, and to take over when they get too old to work. In a bizarre mixup involving an adoption by proxy, a boat, and a train, poor Matthew is surprised to find a redheaded girl waiting for him at the station. He is too tongue-tied to tell her she isn't wanted. So he drives her home and listens to her talk, murmuring "Well now, I dunno" now and then when an answer seems required. And he falls right in love with her imagination and her spirit, right there in an open buggy on the road to Avonlea. By the time they get home to Green Gables farm, Matthew hasn't the heart to tell her she must be sent back to the orphanage.
When he thought of that rapt light being quenched in her eyes he had an uncomfortable feeling that he was going to assist at murdering something - much the same feeling that came over him when he had to kill a lamb or calf or any other innocent little creature.
Marilla Cuthbert is another story. Stern and severe in her Calvinist thrift and discipline, she considers feelings of warmth and tenderness almost shameful things, things to be overcome or at least hidden. Nevertheless, Matthew prevails on Marilla, in his slow persistent way, to let Anne stay with them. Marilla quickly takes charge of the girl's upbringing and begins trying to rein in her flights of fancy and her appetite for pretty fripperies. The relationship that develops between them is fascinating, funny, and frequently touching.

The book follows Anne through her primary-school and high-school years. It situates her childhood in the idyllic country surroundings of rural P.E.I., in a small, close-knit community where neighbors talk to each other over the fence. It details her dreams and adventures in the woods and meadows around Green Gables, her friendships and enmities with local girls and boys - most particularly Gilbert Blythe, who seems destined to win her heart someday, though for several years she refuses to speak to him or of him. It depicts the sparkle of a winning personality who overcomes every heart set against her, from the nosy, know-it-all Mrs. Rachel Lynde across the road to the strict mother and great-aunt of her bosom friend Diana Barry. And though the merry mischief in her matures and mellows, it is never quenched.

Prepare to laugh at Anne's blunders and accidents. Prepare to grip the book with white fingers as she gets into scrapes and misunderstandings. Prepare to be captivated by an effortless flow of beautiful imagery, delicate humor, and swift-paced narrative. L. M. Montgomery's prose reminds me of Austen, but in more modern language; or perhaps Dickens, but with a faster cadence, leaner style, and brighter outlook on the world. It's good-humored writing about a uniquely marvelous, good-humored heroine. I am so glad to have met her. I urge you to make her acquaintance soon.

Anne of Avonlea
by L. M. Montgomery
Recommended Ages: 11+

In Anne of Green Gables, it was delicious to see Anne Shirley grow up from a slight, bright-eyed orphan of eleven to a young woman fresh out of high school. Perhaps it was also sad, to think that all her girlish fancies and adventures were done. But they weren't. As this second book in L. M. Montgomery's classic series shows, the discoveries and delights, missteps and yearnings of a certain vivacious redhead from Prince Edward Island, Canada, have merely entered a new and more advanced phase.

After achieving high honors in secondary school, Anne has a dream - and even a scholarship - to go to college. But those plans are put on hold when her adoptive guardian, Marilla Cuthbert, begins to lose her eyesight. Anne trades in her college plans for a position as teacher in the local school, so she can stay on at Green Gables and help Marilla. This help becomes all the more valuable when two more orphans come into their lives: the sweet-natured Dora Keith, who hardly needs them; and the charming little devil Davy, her twin brother, who promises to keep both women on their toes every hour of every day.

Anne's term as teacher at the Avonlea school is full of challenges. She wants to nurture the genius of a sensitive little boy. She wants to win the love and respect of a tough little rebel. She struggles to help Davy be good. She keeps one finger on the pulse of nature in the country idyll that surrounds Green Gables, while simultaneously keeping another finger in the pie of a community improvement society led by her old schoolmates. She unwittingly plays matchmaker to an estranged married couple, and to a lonely spinster and her long-ago suitor who is now a widower. She observes her childhood friends growing up and away, not without a sense of loss. And she begins to harbor ambitions to become a published writer.

Still on the backburner is a lifelong romance with Gilbert Blythe, a more-than-friendship that Anne will not admit to herself. Still in the rosy future lies the fulfillment of Anne's hopes and dreams: of true love, of a college career, and many other things. To find out how these hopes and dreams turn out, after the incident-filled interlude depicted in this book, look to the third installment: Anne of the Island.

Anne of the Island
by L. M. Montgomery
Recommended Ages: 12+

In two previous books, Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, we observed the youthful adventures of an adorable young woman from Canada's Prince Edward Island. We relished every moment as Anne Shirley matured from a bright-eyed orphan of eleven to the cusp of adulthood. Now, with two years of teaching experience under her belt, Anne seizes the opportunity to go to college, away on the mainland in Nova Scotia. There she is swept up in a whirlwind of studies, domestic delights with her girlfriends, and romantic misadventures.

Swain after swain proposes marriage to this girl, who little understands the effect her vivacious beauty has on men. How many proposals does she turn down? Count them if you please! But will Anne say "yes" and "no" to the right ones? Will she learn to know her own heart before it is too late? That question is the burden of this book.

Gilbert Blythe is there, of course. But their friendship is strained by an unwelcome new feeling that Anne senses coming into it. Then there's a lovely chap named Roy Gardner, who seems to fit all her preconceived notions of Prince Charming; but is she right for him? While Anne wrestles with this dilemma, her path is criss-crossed by the sparks from other couples' chemistry. Her flighty, indecisive friend Philippa, after stringing two suitors along for years, suddenly finds Mr. Right in a most unexpected quarter. Then, almost disastrously, Anne plays matchmaker to a pair who have been courting for twenty years without an outright proposal of marriage.

Meanwhile, she continues to keep up with affairs back home on P.E.I. Davy Keith continues to show a flair for mischief as he grows up. Anne stands by as one of her schoolgirl friends gets married, and as another dies of rapid consumption. Issues of birth and death, love and loss, the joys of embarrassments of becoming a published author, a bittersweet visit to the place of her birth, happy housekeeping and the agonies and perplexities of love, fill every nook and cranny of Anne's active young life.

I started reading this series reluctantly, because a dear friend urged me to look at Anne of Green Gables. I was immediately captivated by the beauty, wit, and transparency of Lucy Maud Montgomery's writing, and by her most exquisite creation, the character of Anne. Since then I was only prevented from blazing straight through the entire seven-book series by my difficulties in obtaining a copy of the fourth book, Anne of Windy Poplars. As soon as I can fill that gap, you can be assured that a review of the last four books will quickly follow. I wonder how it can be possible for those four to give as much pleasure as the first three. But then again, I have been continually surprised by how immensely readable, enjoyable, and all-fired unforgettable were each of these first three books.

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