Now that the weather has turned warmer, however inconsistently so, I’ve been spending more time in the muddy outdoors, and whenever that happens, I find my mind wanders to the more fantastic landscapes I’ve encountered in books. Lately, I’ve been thinking of the red mud and blossoming apple trees described so vividly in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s novels. Early summer often reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, not only because I first read the book in that season, but because Anne Shirley’s journey began then, too.
While the name Anne Shirley might not mean anything to some readers, I don’t know if you could find anyone who grew up in Canada and didn’t recognize the spunky redhead by the name given her in the title of the novel she first appeared in; the 1908 book by Montgomery is the rare children’s classic written by a Canadian.
And despite now being five years past its centennial, Anne’s story is anything but stale or forgotten. Montgomery’s magnum opus continues to be reinterpreted and adapted for new audiences. Though there are only a few, now-dated feature films centering around the character, no less than seven television movies have been filmed, the latest in 2009. 2014 will see the latest in a string of television adaptations, with Breakthrough Entertainment, in partnership with Montgomery’s heirs, producing what they’re calling a ‘contemporary retelling’ of the tale. Stage versions of Anne’s story remain popular as well, and are nearly constantly in production.
A non-author written prequel was even written in 2008 to mark the 100 year anniversary of the first novel’s publication.
Even without all that, the original eight novels would probably still be enough to keep fans trekking to Prince Edward Island to see the Green Gables farmhouse in Cavendish, and other landmarks that inspired Montgomery’s novels, like the pond which Anne enthusiastically dubs The Lake of Shining Waters in the novel.
Anne’s imagination, especially in the face of the tragic circumstance of her early life, is part of what’s so attractive about the novel. Just like Matthew Cuthbert, who went to pick up the boy he and his sister thought that they had adopted instead of Anne, the reader can’t help but be charmed by the way she sees the best in the world.
The plot of Montgomery’s story follows Anne Shirley – like another, later, redheaded orphan girl- in her attempt to find a home after an abysmal early life in orphanages and ill-fitting foster homes. She comes to Green Gables when Matthew and Marilla’s attempt to find a boy to help out with the farm work instead brings them the unfortunate girl who talks far more than anyone else the siblings have ever encountered. While Green Gables seems at first no more likely to work out then previous temporary living situations, Anne quickly wins the approval of the quiet and reserved Matthew, and soon enough Marilla decides that “it’s about time somebody adopted that child and taught her something,” a sentiment prompted by Anne’s obvious neglect.
Anne and the Cuthberts aren’t the only famous names to come from the book; Montgomery’s imagined town of Avonlea, which is the back drop to Anne’s story, as well as others by the author, is home to many of the best known characters in the Canadian canon.
Once ensconced with the Cuthberts, Anne soon meets another of Montgomery’s well-loved characters, Diana Barry, and declares her to be her kindred spirit and long-awaited bosom friend. Diana is just the sort of girl you’d want to be your friend; she’s loyal to a fault and right beside Anne in all her adventures, from performing “The Fairy Queen” at concerts, to exploring the Haunted Woods, to the disastrous attempt to dye Anne’s hated red hair black, which lands her with green locks instead. When Gilbert Blythe calls Anne ‘Carrots’, Josie Pye attempts to undermine her at school, or Mrs. Barry forbids her daughter to be friends with Anne, Diana is steadfast, and, no matter who the detractor is, she defends her spirited friend to the end.
Gilbert Blythe, the ‘sworn enemy’ of Anne’s youth and her eventual romantic interest, is also not to be overlooked. Despite the childhood grudge she bears him for branding her with the detested nickname ‘Carrots’, Gilbert, in one of the book’s best known scenes, rescues Anne from drowning when the enactment of a poem featuring a burial at sea becomes a tad too realistic and Anne is left hanging on to a bridge pillar for dear life while her friends scatter, trying to find help. And of course, the novel reaches its pinnacle when Anne learns that Gilbert has given up his posting as teacher at Avonlea school so that Anne can take it and be closer to Marilla, who is by that point in failing health. When they shake hands and embark on the friendship that they’ve both secretly always wanted, the reader knows that Anne has finally grown up, and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion – seven sequels and several short stories by Montgomery notwithstanding.
It may just be that central theme that keeps readers intrigued so many decades later- everyone loves a good story about a kid growing up and becoming an adult. That’s the story at the centre of hundreds of other successful novels, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsidersand even some of the recently explosively popular series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Montgomery knew how to tell a riveting coming of age story, covering five pivotal years in the protagonist’s life in a little more than 400 pages.
From the very first page, when Marilla explains the plan to adopt an orphan to help with the farm to Mrs. Rachel Lynde – who Montgomery wonderfully describes as “one of those capable creatures who can manage their own concerns and those of other folks into the bargain” – you can’t wait to find out what happens to Anne. By the time she’s telling Matthew of her plan to sleep in a wild cherry tree if he hadn’t come to pick her up, you’re crossing your fingers and hoping for a happy ending for the wayward scrap of a girl.