August 25, 2009 @ 2:13 pm | Filed under: Books
“Jane, it’s the wreck of a fine man that you see before you,” he said hollowly.
“Dad . . . what is the matter?”
“Matter, says she, with not a quiver in her voice. You don’t know…I hope you never will know… what it is like to look casually out of a kitchen window, where you are discussing the shamefully low price of eggs with Mrs Davy Gardiner, and see your daughter…your only daughter …stepping high, wide and handsome through the landscape with a lion.”
Remember when you first realized the author of Anne of Green Gables had written a ton of other books besides the ones about Anne?
Maybe you found the Emily series next. Perhaps at times you harbored the heretical thought that Emily of New Moon was even better than Anne of Green Gables. You always changed your mind and gave the crown back to Anne because, well, there was something a wee bit prickly about Emily; she was terribly interesting, and you certainly admired her fire and her talent, but she wasn’t exactly bosom friend material. She seemed…hmm…a little cliqueish, perhaps, in her way; she wasn’t always out looking for kindred spirits like Anne. Indeed, she had enough difficulty managing the friends she already had. Emily didn’t need you: she had Ilse and Teddy and her art. Not to mention all that nonsense with Dean Priest, who, let’s be honest, kind of creeped you out from the start. And you knew it would be no use trying to warn Emily; that would just have put her back up.
Still, you were so glad you met her.
Perhaps it ended there, with Emily and Anne. Or maybe, just maybe, you were lucky enough to discover the others, the Pat books, the Story Girl duo, the one-offs, the story collections…and if you were very lucky indeed, maybe one day you met Jane of Lantern Hill.
Oh, Jane, that practical, capable, matter-of-fact miss. At first it is easy to underestimate her: she seems to lack the spunk and impulsiveness that make Anne and Emily so entertaining. Anne has barely arrived at Green Gables when she’s blowing up at Mrs. Lynde; and Emily, my goodness, the way she bursts out from under the table quivering with rage at all the aunts and uncles criticizing her father after his funeral: could you help but applaud? But Jane seems so quiet, so put-upon, so cowed by her horrible grandmother. Sure, you can see she’s seething inside, but isn’t that the point? Anne and Emily don’t seethe: they erupt. You keep waiting for Jane to erupt, practically begging her to.
But Jane’s not the erupting type, and what makes her story so satisfying is that she isn’t a prodigy—not of feistiness, nor imagination, nor talent. She’s an average Jane: which means that if Jane can fix up the mess that is her life, anyone can.
When we meet Jane, she and her mother are living with the aforementioned horrible grandmother. At first Jane’s mom seems like a Mrs. Lennox type a la Secret Garden, and you’re half-expecting typhoid to kill her off. But no, there she is fluttering in for a goodnight kiss on her way to a party, and the tear in her eye belies her lighthearted manner. Mummy’s in pain, Jane knows, and she needn’t look farther than Grandmother’s scowl to see why.
Jane’s mother’s family is Old Money, though the neighborhood is decaying around the family mansion. Jane’s cousins got all the talent, brains, and looks, it seems (Jane’s relatives are somewhat hard to distinguish from the obnoxious family of another meek-but-seething Montgomery heroine, Valancy Stirling of The Blue Castle)—but anyone with sense can see that cousin Phyllis and the rest of them are snooty, unimaginative bores, and Jane’s the only one with any salt to her. She’s warmhearted enough to care about the plight of the orphan next door, and she’s alert enough to be interested in the bustle of the servants, particularly the kitchen staff. Mostly Jane longs for something to do, something or someone to take care of. This desire to be active, not passive, is at the heart of Jane’s story. As a small child she entertains herself by imagining “moon sprees,” flights of fancy involving a host of imaginary chums who help her polish the dull and tarnished moon into a gleaming silver orb. This rather quirky fantasy (the quirkiest thing about Jane, really) is an expression of her longing for warm camaraderie, a happy family circle, a cozy hearth, and some soul-satisfying work to do. In her mind all these things are wrapped up together: Jane longs for the warmth and liveliness of a loving family, and she wants to be one of the people involved in the domestic bustle that creates a cozy and welcoming home. Her grandmother’s mansion is as cold and sterile as the dark side of the moon—the place to which her imaginary creatures must go when they are sulky or lazy, and from which they return “chilled to the bone,” eager to warm themselves up with extra-vigorous polishing.
Until age ten, these imaginary moon sprees are Jane’s only outlet for the urge to do, to work, to transform what is cold and lifeless to something warm and bright. Her tyrannical, hypercritical grandmother makes all decisions having to do with Jane and her mother. The mother is like a butterfly trapped in a cage, miserable, helpless. Jane’s father is absent: she has been led to believe he is dead. Then one day a rather nasty schoolmate discloses a disgraceful secret: Jane’s father isn’t dead; he’s alive and well and living on Prince Edward Island. Her mother, claims nasty Agnes, left him when Jane was three years old.
“Aunt Dora said she would likely have divorced him, only divorces are awful hard to get in Canada, and anyhow all the Kennedys think divorce is a dreadful thing.”
Jane is appalled by this knowledge, but it galvanizes rather than paralyzes her. The passive child becomes a girl of action. Her first action is to demand truth—she marches into a tea party and asks the question point blank: “Is my father alive?” Her mother answers simply “yes,” and this truth sets Jane—gradually and eventually, and not without some pain—free. (more…)
August 20, 2009 @ 6:36 pm | Filed under: Books
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?
August 19, 2009 @ 8:03 pm | Filed under: Books
So I was all set to write a post about Jane of Lantern Hill, something I’ve been meaning to do for, oh, years; but I’m 700 words in and still haven’t gotten past Anne of Green Gables. Hmm. This could take a while. There comes a point when you realize you’ve swum out farther than you meant and either you have to turn around and head back to shore, or keep on going across the whole ocean. I have an ocean of things to say about L.M. Montgomery’s books, and I never get around to saying them. During grad school I went on a quest to acquire every single Montgomery novel or story collection in print. Did it, too, which is why I had to live on ramen noodles for two years. She is part of a small cadre of authors whose bodies of work I reread every two or three years: Alcott, Lovelace, L’Engle, Montgomery. Those are my big four. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone important. Not Austen; I don’t reread her all at once: with her it’s a book or two spread out through the year. I do return to Burnett almost every year, but only The Secret Garden. Tolkien is a twice-a-decade-or-thereabouts treat; ditto Lewis. Dickens, maybe one book a year, but it takes a month.
Anyway. The Montgomery epic post is in drafts now, along with 238 other unfinished pieces. Yes, really. I have 239 posts in drafts. Jiminy crickets. That’s a post a day for eight months, if I were to finish them. I wonder what they all are. I’m scrolling down the list and I see most of them are called No Title, because I usually think of titles last. There’s one called: Fewer Dishes, —the comma is part of the title, but there’s nothing after it. Where was I going with that? Fewer Dishes, More what? Pints of Ice Cream?
This post, too, is a No Title post so far. Also, apparently, a No Subject post. And a No Point post. I can probably safely promise No Conclusion as well. I have No Idea where I’m going with this.
I also have No Idea which book I’m going to read next. Yes, that again. Scott finds me staring at a stack of books as tall as our three-year-old, and I wail: “They all look so good. I don’t know what to do.”
“Here’s an idea,” he deadpans. “Open one up and start reading.”
Easy for him to say. I do this dance: I should read the library books first; they’ll be due soon. No, wait. I should read review copies first, because they were sent to me and it seems considerate to tackle them in a timely manner. No, wait! I should start with the books that have been waiting the longest. Like The Diamond Age: how embarrassing; I bought it right after Comic-Con 2008 and fully intended to read it immediately, and then Comic-Con 2009 rolled around and there it was still in the pile. I actually liberated it from the pile this week, put it in my bag on our way to the YMCA, intending to read it during Rose’s gymnastics class—but get this: I rode the exercise bike instead. Instead of reading! What’s happening to me?
Diamond Age is still in my bag, dusty with cracker crumbs.
I’m actually kind of in the mood to reread Jane of Lantern Hill.
Then maybe I could finally finish that post, aka Draft #239.
Hey, anybody else read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate yet? Man, I really need a book club.