L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables
My father always belittled my mother for watching soap operas. “With so much having to be done in this world,” he’d say, “I don’t see how people can spend so much time in another.” The man’s a workhorse, has been labouring since childhood, and his body is marked by that life; how he moves, how he talks, it’s all there. The man was kicked out of school in grade eight for fighting—or so he says—and had never read, from what I’d seen, more than the newspaper, the weather, or a Kijiji listing. So when he admitted to me one summer evening that he’d read Anne of Green Gables, I was surprised.
“They made me read it in school,” he said, “and it made me never want to read another book again.” As far as I know, he hasn’t.
It’s pretty easy to see why my father didn’t (and doesn’t) care for Anne of Green Gables. A man who spent most his life working in this world would have trouble delving into an offshoot of a world in which the main characters are an orphan girl who has more imagination than my father has moustache hairs, and a patriarch who is meek and submissive in comparison to the matriarchs featured in the novel. My grandfather was kicked out of the army for refusing to sweep the floor, saying he wouldn’t do it because it was womens’ work and he had sisters back home to do that sort of thing, and that’s the man who raised Arnold Bailey. And of my father—a man I worked the wharf with in my North Lake fish plant days—he let me know that “his own father couldn’t do nothing with him except tell him to go to hell.”
All this said, the book’s not bad. I mean that. The narrative (even if it wraps up three quarters too neat for my liking) is preferable to the Disney princess mode of things where, if you’re a princess or can get your hands on a prince, things’ll all work out just fine. It’s repeated throughout the book that it’s better to be “dazzlingly clever,” than just beautiful, even if LM Montgomery used a pin-up model as the inspiration for Anne’s face, and there’s a large attention paid by the female characters on how they look. But that’s OK. The book’s half-decently written, better written than, say, Lord of the Rings, though it’s not without its stylistic foibles. For instance, in the first three chapters people are ejaculating a lot instead of saying things. When it comes to speech tags, “said” and “says” never go out of fashion. The characters also suffer the poor misfortune of not only ejaculating things, but what they’re ejaculating is modified by adverbs or decorated with exclamation marks. Gross, right?
The book is bogged down at times with too much description, which is also weighted with adjectives and adverbs. Did you know PEI is picturesque and pretty and junk? If you thought it was a rust-coloured piece of litter situated on the waves of the Atlantic, Miss Montgomery begs to differ.
There’s also this thing on PEI, where, if you’re not born there you’re “from away,” and you’ll always be from away. You could have lived in PEI since Pearson was Prime Minister and you’d still be the new neighbours. Anne, PEI’s most famous resident, turns out to not only be fictional but is also from Nova Scotia. She “came from away,” but she loves Green Gables and the island.
Admittedly, I don’t know how far my father got into the book. I asked and he said he read the first and last page of it but I don’t believe that. Maybe he got a few pages in and stopped, or maybe just a few lines. Maybe he read the whole thing. All I know is it put him off reading for pleasure and I can see why. Anne of Green Gables isn’t Barometer Rising, nor is it Rum Punch. Those are the sorts of stories Arnold might have liked at that age, maybe. I say maybe because he always decried dwelling in worlds not this one. When he found out I was going to the Banff Centre to work with Lorna Crozier, he told me to get a job in nursing. There’s always jobs in nursing. When I let him know I was going to school for my MFA, his response was to ask what it’d get me.
The man grew up on a farm, started fishing full time in his teens, and liked to drink in his formative years. He’s not Anne’s target demographic. He might’ve been Hemingway’s, or possibly Morley Callaghan’s, but Montgomery wasn’t writing books to please my father or the man he’d become. The characters that populate her Prince Edward Island seem to me more well-to-do than those that coloured Arnold’s childhood. They don’t reflect what he knew as he knew it, didn’t talk using the words people around him used. If that’s what is between the covers of books, why would he bother with them anymore?
There were a couple parts Montgomery really nailed down in her PEI. Two that really stick out come near the beginning. One recurs throughout: word spreads quickly in Canada’s smallest province and everyone knows what you’re doing. You can’t let loose a stray fart without someone telling you what you had for breakfast. The other is a matter of politeness, where it’s expected of one of the main characters to nod at people he meets, even if he doesn’t know them. People on PEI will talk to you even if you’re a stranger, and if you look like you’re lost there’s a good chance you’ll get asked what it is you’re looking for. I once said “Hello” to a woman in Toronto because we made eye contact and I figured I should be polite. She looked at me and she said, “No thanks.” That doesn’t happen on PEI.
Downtown Charlottetown, PEI
Now, at this point Arnold’s point of view on reading has changed, but only just a little. For part of my MFA poetry workshop, I had to make a small clutch of poems written with a specific theme in mind. I did, and then I gave a copy to my parents for Christmas, leaving a note to the effect that, look, I know there’s distance between them and what I do, but hopefully these poems would help close that. Both my parents read this grouping of poems about relationships and alienation and family and work—the kind of work them and I know, the same way trees know the feel of the wind in their limbs.
“I read the poems,” Arnold said to me.
“Better than Anne of Green Gables?”
“Jesus,” he said. “The first two lines were better than Anne of Green Gables.”
And he didn’t say a word about nursing, or me having a future in that field of work.
Chris Bailey is a strong, cool, handsome fisherman, and an award-winning poet and author from PEI. An alumni of the Banff Centre’s Writing With Style program, his work has appeared in Villamere, UPEI Arts Review, and on CBC Radio. Currently, Chris is working towards his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph and is the Managing Editor at Villamere, the lowbrow magazine of high-end CanLit. His favourite ice cream is cookie dough, but he isn’t overly picky.