“…Fiction…communicates indirectly by inviting us into a reality that we live by means of imagination… Literature creates a world, and the writer invites your participation: you will not understand what the novel is about unless you step into that created world and live in it.” (Victor Shepherd)
The world that my Grade 5/6 class is currently inhabiting is the world of Anne of Green Gables. I didn’t know when I chose to read this novel with them that a new series based on the book would simultaneously appear on TV. As the students began to come into class talking about the series, I wondered if I should ask them to critically evaluate it against the book. As it happened, I didn’t need to say anything about that at all; they independently began making the comparisons and concluded that the series, although entertaining, was not true to the book.
That world depicted on the TV is another world, but it isn’t the world that L. M. Montgomery created. Somehow I didn’t expect that my students would be loyal to the book at all; in fact, I was almost dreading starting the novel with them, because I wasn’t sure that the boys would receive it enthusiastically. But I was wrong.
As we open the book together day by day and step into Anne’s world, my boys are the ones who laugh the loudest and longest at Anne’s exploits. While there is some eye-rolling at her flowery language from time to time, and some remarks about her extended monologues (“Was that whole chapter just Anne talking?”) on the whole, they are rooting for her.
What is it about Anne that endears herself to us? She is inexplicably relatable, while simultaneously unique and even eccentric. As we chuckle at her hapless, head-in-the-clouds ways and the scrapes she gets herself into, we’re actually laughing at ourselves. Her vanity, her pride, her stubbornness, her failure to control her tongue and temper – in all her failings, we see our own, and we’re invited to see the frailty and humor in the human condition.
Anne’s so-called heathen ways are an affront to Marilla’s stiff religious sensibilities. Her stiffness in the light of Anne’s child-like questions calls us to examine our own rigid ideas about God and their source, and invites us into the freedom of Anne’s childhood wonder and delight.
Anne has been like a familiar friend to me for decades. In my mind’s eye I see myself at eleven years old, sprawled out on a quilt beneath the blossoming tree in our front yard, an open box of Girl Guide cookies beside me. I’m stomach down, a cookie in one hand, Anne’s House of Dreams in the other, oblivious to all but the scent of the blossoms above me and the scene unfolding before me in my book.
Like Anne, I was fairly red-headed and freckled, and loved learning, nature, and romance. The descriptions of her Prince Edward Island home were not unlike my Vancouver Island home; apart from the red dirt, of course. In Anne, I felt I had found what she called a kindred spirit.
My grandmother also loved Anne. I once spent the evening with her, watching the Sullivan movie based on the book. Grandma delighted in Anne’s escapades, and it brought back memories of her own childhood on a farm in Star City, Saskatchewan. She vividly recalled to me her own one room schoolhouse, a hub in their small community, and farm life with both its charms and hard work.
Not long before Grandma suddenly passed away, the women in our family had taken her on a special outing to see the Anne of Green Gables production at the Chemainus Theatre. My sister pointed out afterward that Grandma had never stopped smiling at any point in the performance.
I brought the memory of that smile with me to Prince Edward Island last summer. Over thirty years after my first reading of the book, I was crossing the long bridge to the land of Anne. Part of me was resisting the association with Anne, wanting to enjoy the island for its own sake. Of course, PEI has fully embraced Anne devotees, a boon to its tourism industry. Yes, there’s a lot of kitsch (like gaudy straw hats with fake red braids attached) but you can almost completely avoid the tackiness if you try.
The spectacular scenery only improved upon the loveliness I had imagined while reading Montgomery’s descriptions of the island. Seeing the real-world PEI did not spoil my ability to live in Anne’s imaginary world, but rather enhanced it.
In Friday’s Literature class, my students were debating why Anne had such a fine imagination but Diana appeared to have none. One student put forward the idea that your imagination is a product of the family you grow up in, and perhaps Diana’s family didn’t encourage it; another argued that you don’t get your imagination from your family because Anne didn’t always have a family – her imagination developed because she had to survive somehow as an orphan. Another student thought that Diana should have a good imagination because she read so much, but another commented that some people just like to see things as they are and they don’t like to imagine otherwise.
I hope that in reading the novel, my students see the right use of the imagination as a good thing.