I discovered L. M. Montgomery around the age of eleven while visiting my cousins in South Georgia. I still remember kneeling on the floor before a shelf full of books belonging to my much-admired cousin Carla, four years my senior. Aunt Ann said these were books Carla had outgrown and I could have any of them I liked for keeps, and only now does it occur to me that I might have skipped back to Colorado with one of Carla’s treasures in my suitcase—because who ever outgrows Anne of Green Gables? Oh, Carla, I’m so sorry: I owe you a copy!
(But not that copy: I still have it, but it lost its cover about a decade ago. It was the only cover that ever got Anne exactly right. I have searched for the image on Google, to no avail.)
That book, Carla’s book, was the beginning of something big for me. It’s like this: at eleven years old, a girl is like a loom loosely threaded with a pliable warp, waiting for the weft of life to come along and transform those rows of hanging, separate threads into one whole unified and unique piece of fabric. Anne Shirley was a shuttle full of the most wonderful thread, luminous yet strong, resiliant, durable; and she darted back and forth across the warp like something dancing. I read the first three chapters of the book kneeling there before the little cabinet in the quiet, elegant room just off my aunt and uncle’s kitchen, and when I got up, tucking the book under my arm, a few inches of the fabric of my life had been woven, just like that.
Anne spoke of kindred spirits and I understood her at once, and saw quite clearly that she and I were kindred spirits, for all she was a fictional character. And of course that is how every girl who loves those books feels about Anne. We relate to this complicated girl full of quirks that aren’t really quirks at all, because we have them ourselves: her struggle to express big ideas in words that were never quite big enough to hold them despite their numerous syllables; her propensity for making stupid mistakes; her yearning to love and be loved; her attachment to place and her obsession with naming things, especially places, but trees and lakes and houseplants as well; her fierce loyalty, particularly to her own visions—a sometimes dreadful loyalty, clung to past reason, as when she coldly snubs Gilbert Blythe after he rescues her from drowning.
Well, there she was, my bosom friend, Anne Shirley, and when I returned home, I rode my bike all over our corner of Aurora, Colorado, hunting for more Anne stories in the various branches of our public library system. (Oh, those heady days when kids could ride their bikes all over town without even the safety net of a cell phone—or a bike helmet, for that matter. Mom, Dad, how did you manage it without going crazy?) It took me years to track down the entire Anne Shirley series. I was a graduate student before I found Rilla of Ingleside, which may be my favorite Anne book save only Green Gables itself. No, wait, House of Dreams is my favorite. I remember reading The Road to Yesterday long before I located Anne of Ingleside or Rainbow Valley—I think it’s Road to Yesterday, and not one of the Chronicles of Avonlea collections, that contains the short story about the twins whose widowed mother a grown-up-and-happily-married-yet-still-irrepressibly-matchmaking Anne helps reunite with the beau she parted from in anger long before falling in love with the twins’ father. I loved that story not only because it was satisfyingly romantic, but because it gave me a glimpse of Mrs. Blythe, wife and mother but still my Anne. Actually she was much more my Anne than the anxious, fretful creature who appears for a few chapters in Ingleside, convinced beyond reason that Gilbert has a thing for a girl he knew in college. Seriously, Anne? Or rather, Lucy Maud. Surely you weren’t so hard up for plot twists that you had to take an otherwise delightful book in that out-of-character direction. Insecurity was never Anne’s problem.
But I digress. I didn’t come here to talk about Anne at all, believe it or not. It was Jane I was thinking of, Jane of Lantern Hill—the character who gave my oldest daughter her name as an alias when I started this blog four and a half years ago. And now I’ve gone on about Anne so long that Jane will have to wait until tomorrow. To be continued?
E. B. White Essays
Jane’s addendum to my Henry Hikes post
Writing for a Living: Q & A
Another Book from the Baby Pile