When I was young, the Anne of Green Gables novels were among my favorite novels. This hasn’t changed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve always been somewhat puzzled, however, by the fact that the books never seemed that popular among my friends back when I was young. Today, I never hear it bandied about as a childhood classic. Accordingly, I’m writing this post solely to bring to light one of my favorite series.
For a quick bit of background: The Anne novels, eight in all, begin when Anne is 12 years old and recently rescued from a Canadian orphanage. They continue throughout her young adulthood, marriage, motherhood, and end by chronicling the lives of her children.
To begin with, the novels present words in a way no other children’s book does. I learned to love reading by reading these books and enjoying the words and images they conjured. Lucy Maud Montgomery, the books’ author, is a wordsmith, as can be seen in her elegantly shaped sentences, descriptive chapter titles (“Anne Is Invited Out To Tea”), and the (I’ve always found) perfectly chosen names of characters and places. (Marilla, for example, is an apt name for an old, plain, straight-laced spinster woman.) Reading these books gives the reader a deep appreciation for the potency of words and names; indeed, the characters too are aware of the power their names hold over them. Anne, as a young girl, despises her name as plain and old-fashioned. She longs to be known as “Cordelia,” an evocative name, conjuring images of glamour and beauty. Every lake, road, tree, and flower Anne encounters deserves a name or a word fitting to its image (some of the words Montgomery used I’ve never encountered anywhere else). This desire is not just Anne’s; it’s realized by the writing of her author. The novel begins, for example, with this sentence:
Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum…
The novels also, like many wonderful works of art, illustrate the beauty in the details of life. One doesn’t read these books for their suspense or intriguing plot developments. Anne lives the most ordinary of lives, and pages are devoted to the most ordinary of occurrences. Anne, waking up, thrilled at the realization that her geranium has flowered; detailed descriptions of the lady (present in every town, especially every small town) who sits at the window day in and day out, wanting to always be the first knower of the town news; Anne’s trials and tribulations with geometry, and how much it vexes her when the teacher changes the letters on the geometry proofs. What makes these hum-drum occurrences special and intriguing is Anne herself, for Anne, in a way I’ve never found in any other book character, is a most loving and compassionate soul, always seeking to find the good in every person. In this ordinary town, Anne finds the good in all its inhabitants. It’s impossible to read one of the novels and not attempt (for a few days at least) to be a kinder, nicer person.
Last and best of all, the novels are all about love. Yet unlike so many novels where the love story is the guiding, plot-developing force, in the Anne books, love is simply omnipresent and enveloping as life itself. It’s the undercurrent that isn’t explicitly discussed, analyzed, or mentioned (in contrast to a lot of childhood and young adult books) because it doesn’t need to be. Anne’s love for her adoptive parents, her friends, her community (and their love for her), shines through in her every action. This love makes Anne’s life and community idyllic in a practical–not fantastical, and thus attainable–way:
When she crossed the log bridge over the brook the kitchen light of Green Gables [Anne’s home] winked her a friendly welcome back, and through the open door shone the hearth fire, sending out its warm red glow athwart the chilly autumn night. Anne ran blithely up the hill and into the kitchen, where a hot supper was waiting on the table.
Mark Twain described Anne as “the dearest, most moving and most delightful child since the immortal Alice [in Wonderland]”. It’s an apt characterization.