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Avonlea with an A

by Timber Press on January 30, 2018

in Natural History

“This island is the bloomiest place.” —Anne Shirely in Anne of Green Gables. Included photographs by Kerry Michaels.

During the course of her life, Lucy Maud Montgomery published twenty novels, more than five hundred short stories, hundreds of poems, and numerous essays. But it was her first and remarkable novel, Anne of Green Gables (1908), that garnered her a worldwide audience. The enthusiastic response to the book spurred an immediate request for more stories about the spunky, irrepressible Anne in an additional seven novels and three story collections fill out the rest of Anne’s life.

Such popularity derives from the book’s equally compelling features: the appeal of its storyline—elderly siblings want a boy from an orphanage to help them with farm work and are sent an odd scrawny girl instead—and the sheer force of Anne’s personality, so garrulous, smart, and endearing that she quickly wins over Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert along with a wide array of island characters. Anne’s imagination carries the book, as she manages to find the beauty in the bleak and the lesson in every disaster, beginning with the grim possibility of being returned to the orphanage.

Due to the phenomenal success of Anne of Green Gables, tourism is Prince Edward Island’s second most important industry, with agriculture (number one) and fishing (number three) still as important as they were when Montgomery lived there. For the fan seeking the landscapes of Anne’s old haunts, however, the level of new development can be startling; this is not the Prince Edward Island of the late 1890s, when Anne was gathering mayflowers by the armfuls and wandering fern-lined paths through the woods.

One has to look beyond the modern conveyances to see the evidence of undisturbed woodlands, acres of farmland, and expanse of ocean just beyond, or squint in a way that blurs the adjacent golf course and amusement park, the buses and B&Bs, the tour groups and Anne look-alikes in their aprons and wigs with red braids. It is then that it becomes possible to see and sense all that a child—or the child in all of us—might have been able to learn and pursue in the Prince Edward Island of Anne’s era. This book returns readers to the original landscape that so inspired one of literature’s most memorable characters.

A road through the woods, looking much as it would have in Montgomery’s day. In Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery referred to a similar lane as the Birch Path.

Lucy Maud Montgomery shares numerous similarities with the unforgettable Anne Shirley. Anne’s parents died when she was an infant; Maud’s mother also died when she was not quite two, and her father decamped to the other side of the continent a few months later. Both are subsequently raised by elderly people—Maud by her mother’s grim and stiff parents, and Anne by a pair of unmarried siblings. Both are gregarious, intelligent, high achievers, excelling at their schoolwork and ranking top in their classes. Both attend one-room schools and later teach in them. Both delight in being in the midst of social whirls—whether berrying, recital-planning, or sharing pranks with their classmates; both also pursue justice ferociously and are adept at maintaining an iciness against those they feel have wronged them.

Most notably, though, it’s when landscape and the imagination merge that their shared sensibility becomes most evident. They use many of the same names for their favorite places (Lover’s Lane, the Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood) and spend as much time as possible wandering favorite spots (when she and her friends were young, Montgomery writes in an 1892 journal entry, “we fairly lived in the woods”). The great expanses of sea and field act like canvases for their imaginations, the quiet island beauty nourishing their souls.

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) on the coastline.

In the first eight years of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s surviving journals, the period she subsequently describes in Anne of Green Gables, nothing is rendered as poetically as are the scenes of nature—not clothing or playmates or the interiors of houses, not pets or schoolrooms or suitors. It’s when she turns her attention to the surrounding land that the reader can feel her changing gears to one that evokes far more passion. In that shift of her gaze to the outdoors, the ordinary falls away, and the following sentences soar with aesthetic power. The subtle hues in a sunset, the changing colors of autumn, the winter scenes from a horse-drawn sleigh—all reverberate with new meaning when seen through Maud Montgomery’s or Anne Shirley’s eyes.

This shift in voice when turning to the landscape is especially noticeable when either girl is feeling uncertain, badly treated, or homesick, as in Anne’s first hours with the Cuthberts, not knowing whether they would let her stay at Green Gables, or when Montgomery spends an awkward teenage year in Saskatchewan with her father and his new wife and realizes she has little place in their life there. To rally herself, each girl turns toward the natural world—looking out a window, walking down a wooded lane, or recovering a memory of some happy time spent outside—and almost immediately, as though a switch had been flipped, the prose vibrates with a new energy and the sorrow fades away.

 

Catherine Reid has taught at a number of different schools, most recently at Warren Wilson College, in Asheville, North Carolina, where she served as director of the creative writing program and specialized in creative nonfiction and environmental writing. She has been a creative writing fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and has received fellowships in creative nonfiction from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

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