I am an omnivorous reader, a habit I began to develop as a child when at the age of seven or eight I went through all the books on my parents' shelves. I spent hours poring over our twelve volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which fortunately came with many illustrations and full colour plates. My father's biography of Winston Churchill was more difficult and I soon gave that up.
But my mother had a few hardcover novels from her childhood; Girl of the Limberlost, Heidi and several Lucy Maud Montgomery books such as Magic for Marigold and Rilla of Ingleside, and these were a revelation to me.
They were not easy to read. My mother was born in 1923 and her books, written between 1880 and 1920 were definitely products of their time. The language was flowery and the syntax awkward, but never having read novels before, I had nothing to compare them with. So I got past the strange wording and the unfamiliar social references and grew to love the stories for themselves.
With hindsight, I can understand why. The heroes were all courageous girls from humble homes, displaced into unfamiliar circumstances, who survived by relying on their imagination and intelligence. Their’s were stories of self-discovery, about learning how to be the best version of themselves despite, or because of, hardship and adversity.
I had never heard the term “role model”, but I did know I loved those books and wanted more. At the Westdale public library in Hamilton I worked up enough nerve to ask the librarian for Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery's first book, written in 1908. If you're unfamiliar with the plot, here's a brief synopsis:
Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan, has been sent by mistake from the asylum in Nova Scotia to an elderly brother and sister couple, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who had requested a boy to help them with their Prince Edward Island farm called Green Gables. Anne is a freckly-faced gawky thing with flaming red hair, fierce intelligence and a vivid, bounding imagination.
At first Marilla and Matthew try to send Anne back, then decide to keep her, and although Matthew falls in love with her immediately, it takes a little more time for Marilla to do the same, due partly to the fact that Anne never stops trying their patience by getting into one trouble after another.
Well, if I had loved the other books, I was in seventh heaven with this one. Just reading the first chapter set my mind reeling. A hero named Anne! With red hair! In my new fantasy world, I too was a plucky orphan girl in Prince Edward Island of the 1900s. I immediately knew that Anne Shirley was my alter ego. We had so much in common!
To begin with – the red hair. Anne Shirley and I were in agreement that this was a terrible burden to be born with. I had been teased unmercifully about it all my life, and when Anne's arch-rival Gilbert Blythe pulled her braids and taunted her with “Carrot! Carrot!” it somehow eased the burden to know that somewhere else in Canada was a girl who'd felt my pain.
Although I had a brother and sister who also had red hair, it never occurred to me that they might feel the same. By the way, I was at least sixteen before I discovered that some women actually dye their hair red on purpose!
We both had a fearsome temper, a trait that apparently comes with the hair colour. It's a known fact (at least, known to all my family) that red-haired people have a hot temper that flares up fast but dies out equally quickly. In immediate retaliation to the name-calling, Anne Shirley whams Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate, cracking it in the process. (The slate, not his head!)
I reread that scene many times, wishing with all my might that I, too, had a slate to whack someone with when I needed it. Although the teacher punished Anne by sending her to sit on the boys' side of the classroom for the rest of the day, I felt it was worth it.
Both of us were cursed with a vivid imagination. Anne named a favourite spruce grove the Haunted Wood and imagined it full of wailing ghosts and headless men stalking up and down the path, then found she was too frightened to walk through it after dark.
For me, being sent up to bed alone in my grandmother's house was equally terrifying. First I would tiptoe, quiet as a mouse, up the steep enclosed staircase. One errant creak and I would freeze, trying with all my might not to alert whatever was lying in wait for me up in the darkened hallway.
Then I would run as fast as I could past the gaping black mouth of the linen closet. Upon reaching the threshold of the bedroom I would launch myself into the air, praying I'd make it all the way before the monsters under the bed could grab me by the ankles.
Last but not least, there's the little matter of our shared name. Anne Shirley says; “When you hear a name pronounced can't you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you'll only call me Anne spelled with an e I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”
I knew exactly what she meant, and have spelled my name with an e ever since.
As a country girl who was most at home in the out-of-doors, I loved the descriptions of nature that are found on almost every page of the book. I could easily imagine myself here:
“Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and where scores of white birches grew, upspringing airily out of an undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things generally. Beyond it was a hill, green and feathery with spruce and fir.”
Or here: “The air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.”
I eventually read the entire series of Anne books, which trace her successful career as a teacher and finally marriage and motherhood. I already knew that Anne's future husband was the once-detested Gilbert Blythe, since the first L.M. Montgomery book I read, Rilla of Ingleside, was actually the last in the series. Rilla, named for Marilla Cuthbert, is Anne and Gilbert's youngest daughter, and Ingleside is their house in Summerside, PEI.
I reread Anne of Green Gables every couple of years or so. Each time, I notice new details, descriptions or characters. Clearly, Anne was a precocious child in many ways and an innocent in others, and she often spoke words that ring true through the ages. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:
“There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting.”
“Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it.”
“Isn't it splendid there are so many things to like in this world?”
Anne Burlakoff is not of Green Gables but fantasized that she was for a number of her childhood years. She currently lives in Dundas, Ontario, and is working her way through Brian Henry’s classes one by one.”
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