A couple posts ago, I wrote about reading Before Green Gables, and some of you asked me how it was. I hadn't finished it yet, so I didn't want to prematurely recommend or reject it, but today I finished it. I would have finished it last night, but I was sobbing so much I couldn't read the pages any more. And even though I woke up today with my eyes nearly swollen shut, I managed to finish the last few chapters.
The verdict is: it's really good. It's very, very sad, and if you're a parent it might make your heart break into a million pieces. But it's still good.
If you haven't read any of the Anne of Green Gables books, I absolutely do not recommend reading Before Green Gables first. The book was not written by Lucy Maud Montgomery herself; in fact, the book, by Budge Wilson, was just published earlier this year. It is, in short, one author's hypothesis of what life was like for Anne Shirley before we meet her on the train platform in Bright River. Reading this prequel to the Anne books will certainly shape your imagination when you read the series, and I really think one ought to read the Montgomery books in the order they are written (not that I'm always a literary purist, but in this case I confess to being one).
The Anne books give us a few clues into what life must have been like for her before she goes on to live with the Cuthberts (the death of her parents when she was an infant, her living with the Thomases, the Hammonds, and then the orphanage), but all in all we aren't quite sure how this eleven-year old girl came to have such a large and dramatic vocabulary, as well an ability to win the hearts of those around her. This book gives a thoroughly researched and entirely plausible idea of what events shaped Anne's life.
I am a huge Anne fan. Once upon a time I was even a member of the Anne of Green Gables society, and I still have my Kindred Spirits magazines (before they started publishing online). I remember the summer I read through the entire Anne series for the first time, and I can say that no other literary series has so profoundly affected my life. Whenever I want something beautiful, want to be encouraged, want to restore some optimism to my life, I know that the Anne books will get me there.
For as much as I enjoyed Before Green Gables, if I hadn't known what the ending would be--with Anne leaving the train to start her new life with the Cuthberts--it would have a been altogether too heart-breaking. While Anne Shirley has always been a sympathetic character, I now have an even greater context in which to place her life story. In Anne of Green Gables, when Anne believes she is going to be sent back to the orphanage and Montgomery writes, "...upstairs, in the east gable, a lonely, heart-hungry, childless friend cried herself to sleep," a first-time reader might feel pity, might even feel a bit sad. But after having read Before Green Gables that one sentence alone brings a flood of tears to my eyes because now I can imagine an even greater sorrow for this poor child who had believed with all her heart that she had finally found someone who wanted her, only to discover that she was, again, unwanted.
Of course, that's part of the magic of Before Green Gables. When you read it and feel your heart breaking for Anne, you know something she doesn't: she finds her happily ever after. Now that I'm rereading through the series, I think the prequel will help make Anne's triumph of the spirit even more uplifting than before.
I realize that Anne Shirley is a fictional character, and you might think I'm a raving lunatic for crying over this imaginary person. Except, oh, except I can't help but think of all the children who have lives like Anne's--shuttled between various homes, parents dead (either physically or emotionally), wanting so badly to be loved. For me, Before Green Gables doesn't just capture the heart of Anne Shirley, it captures the heart of so many thousands of other children who are longing to find their Green Gables. Those stories weigh on my heart.
I can, however, take away the message that L. M. Montgomery develops (and Budge Wilson continues) through the spirit of Anne Shirley: to relentlessly pursue love and beauty, even--and especially--when it's difficult. Ah yes, I am an eternal optimist, which is why it is no surprise that Anne Shirley will always be one of my most favorite literary characters of all.
(c) Creature Bug 2008. All rights reserved.