ANNE SHIRLEY, REVISITED
My orange, hardcover Anne of Green Gables, minus the dust jacket, surfaces at the family cabin fifty years later. My mother must have moved it. When I ran away at fourteen, she confiscated everything, eager to erase all traces of her willful daughter. But gradually, in precious bits and pieces, totems from my childhood find their way back. I slip it in my suitcase when she’s not looking.
Anne is back.
The book was a gift from Aunt Dodie, Christmas 1964. In a round, careful hand, new to cursive, I’d inscribed the date and my name, phone number, and address, underlined in pencil and retraced with ink. In larger loops, “Best wishes, Marilyn”, centered on the page. This is not my aunt’s writing, but what I thought she should’ve written before wrapping her gift. I’m eight years old, smart enough to discern a special book, and to correct my elders’ lapses.
My aunt is smart enough to know I’m ready for Anne.
Flipping to chapter one, Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Surprised, my grown self is surprised by the first paragraph, an astonishing 148-word sentence, punctuated with nine commas and three semi-colons. The one-sentence paragraph brims with vivid description, anthropomorphism, foreshadowing, ironic humor, and what today’s educators might consider advanced vocabulary for young readers: words like alders, traversed, headlong, intricate, decorum, and ferreted. Yet I remember, as a second grader, being swept into Anne’s story like a twig on Mrs. Lynde’s headlong brook. Granted, I was a bit advanced when it came to language; that same year, my teacher reported I was writing metrical poems with internal rhyme. Still, I wonder at how standards have dropped since Lucy Maud Montgomery penned her children’s stories.
I’m also amazed that the first chapter, eight and a half dense pages, is devoted to the dynamics of two aging neighbors before Lucy Maud introduces a third old timer (Matthew Cuthbert is Surprised) in chapter two. We don’t meet Anne till page 12, “A child of about eleven, garbed in a very short, very tight, very ugly dress of yellowish gray wincey”.
With those words, Anne secured my eight-year-old sympathy. Whatever ‘wincey’ was, it sounded dreadful, and I was already thick in the Clothing Wars with my own guardian—my mother---who also dressed me ugly, though my garb tended to be baggy, not tight, bought extra-large to accommodate years of self-consciousness before I could outgrow them. On some level, I envied Anne’s motherlessness. My mother seemed intent on stoking my misery, and I often felt I’d be happier without her. Poor orphan Anne---scrawny, unloved, ill-garbed---was luckier than I. She was getting a second chance, and I knew, based on the book’s title and the long lead-up to her arrival, that life at Green Gables was going to work out fine.
I remember feeling embarrassed for Matthew, the tongue-tied bachelor still living with his spinster sister, discomfited by social interaction yet smitten by Anne’s unbottled chatter. I was also a bit embarrassed for Anne; I didn’t have the vocabulary for “over the top”, but I grasped the concept and that’s how she seemed, rhapsodizing over apple trees and brooks in a stream-of-consciousness unheard-of in my world. If I wanted to rhapsodize, I’d do it in a poem, and even then, I’d be constrained by rhyme and meter. But Anne was effusively talkative; even Matthew thought so, and I figured life at Green Gables would eventually calm her down. I wanted to love her; there were chapters of adventures awaiting me, and I hoped I could tolerate her prattle long enough to be just as smitten as Matthew.
It didn’t take long.
I was baffled by Anne’s ongoing contempt for her red hair. The red-haired girls I knew at school were beautiful; indeed, any girl with long hair was enviable, and Anne wore long braids, opposite of the short, blocky haircuts inflicted on me. I howled with Anne when her hair turned green, and inwardly wept when it had to be cut. Better to be green than short, I thought, but it was Anne’s choice---at Marilla’s suggestion---to chop it off in self-punishment. A quick study, Anne took responsibility for her gaffes faster than I ever did, something I might have learned had I been seeking self-improvement. But I was far more focused on Anne’s relationships, particularly her yearning for a bosom-buddy friend. Like Anne, I pined for a Diana, and like her, I was lucky to find one.
Diana was a bit of a bore, compared to my best friend, but she was pliable and loyal, everything Anne wanted. My favorite sections described their friendship, the glow of girlish devotion and an imagined, shared future that nothing would separate. Like Diana, my bosom buddy lived across the lane, her windows visible at night, and like our fictional friends, Laura and I tried signalling each other with flashlights, using an invented code to communicate when we were supposed to be sleeping. We borrowed the idea directly from the girls, and quit when we realized there was nothing new to share after hours of daytime companionship. But the fusion of Anne and Diana would remain my platonic template. Best friends were everything: the epitome of the good life, the consolation prize for whatever other gifts life might withhold. Lucy Maud understood this, and without Diana, Anne would still be orphaned.
Half a century later, strong images linger. I can still taste the sweet, mislabelled ‘cordial’ Anne kept pouring for Diana, and watch as her thirsty friend staggers home drunk. I hear the thwack of Anne’s slate on Gilbert’s startled head when he pulled her pigtail, and feel the rush of double shame Anne must have felt. I breathe the sickly-sweet, blossomed air in the White Way of Delight, merging with my own queasiness as I lie in my childhood bed, felled by one illness or another, rereading Green Gables and waiting for ministrations of ear drops, baby aspirin, or warm milk and honey. I picture Anne in bed with me, studying the pen-and-ink drawings of a feisty, freckled, sharp-chinned sprite, transforming everyone in the quaint little world she inherited by chance.
In those years, four books merited constant rereading, especially on sick days. There was Anne. There was Mary Poppins. There was Alice. And then, supplanting my earliest heroine, there was Jo March, blessed with three sisters--- sisters I didn’t have, and a mother softly called Marmee.
I followed Anne through some of the later books, watching her grow up, fall in love, nurse Marilla, embrace her career. Young Anne was still my favorite. At thirteen, I lost interest in her grown-up life, enthralled by new books sent for Christmas: 100 Years of Solitude, Catch-22, To Kill a Mockingbird. My aunt invariably found books to baffle, challenge, and enchant me. In most books, she remembered to write an inscription.
I pick up my original orange hardcover and flip to chapter three. Marilla Cuthbert is Surprised. Like the twig of a girl I used to be, I’m swept downstream.
After a colorful life lived in six countries and four continents, earning her keep as cook, chambermaid, fisher-woman, waitress, missionary, church leader, ESL teacher/tutor, and academic writing coach/editor, Marilyn Kriete has finally returned to her first love---writing. With two completed memoirs and a third undergoing its umpteenth set of revisions, she's busy seeking an agent and publisher to bring her work to the reading world.