I was always a reader, and I was always given books as gifts. Some, I’m only now, at 36, making the time to read. After spending the first half of 2018 struggling along with Virginia Woolf, finding my own depression worsening as I read, again and again, how she lived—and died—with her own, I gave myself a reprieve. I didn’t finish my planned project to read all her novels, though I might come back to it in a sunnier future.
A tack which has worked for me in the past is to indulge myself in an old childhood joy. Previous down periods have lead to remembering how I loved our weekend family hikes or playing with Play-Doh and board games. This summer, I turned to books—all those children’s classics, still unread in my bookcase.
I picked up Anne Frank’s diary first, but quickly regretted that choice. It’s escape I’m looking for now, and her life is not far enough from our current reality. How odd that I would replace one Anne with another.
I have a clear memory of sitting on the grass in the playground which backed onto our yard, back against the fence, reading the first of the two Avonlea books bound in one hardcover. But I don’t recall finishing those books then. I always had a distractable mind. I often have three or four books, part read, forgotten on a table somewhere.
The iconic CBC movie was before my time, and we didn’t watch Road to Avonlea either. Anne is a product of the Maritimes, and I’m a child of the West Coast. She is Canadian, yes, but not quite my kind of Canadian.
I lived the year I turned 30 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a whim, an adventure, a chance to see that part of my country and meet those kinds of Canadians. While I was there, I saw colours of Lunenburg, took the train to Moncton, and spent a weekend in Charlottetown. The plan was to visit the industrial tourist complex that Green Gables has become, but a mechanical problem with the bus kept me stranded in the capital. I was disappointed, but not so disappointed. It was something I thought I should do while I had the chance, not something I needed.
Currently, I’m on Anne of Ingleside, the 6th book in the primary series. Anne and Gilbert have six children, and the narrative has passed to them now. The first book is still my favourite, and I feel confident in that declaration, even before I’ve finished reading them all. Anne is the most Anne, undiluted by adulthood and the reader’s desire for more.
I can’t begrudge Lucy Maud Montgomery writing more Anne when the people asked. I know how hard it is to make a living as a writer. At this point, I’d love to have a steady series with reliable characters. But I like each Anne book less than the last. The first was published in 1908, and Ingleside in 1939. That’s a helluva gap. Did she grow to resent Anne in that time? Did Lucy Maud want to be free to write something else?
As summer here on the West Coast comes to an end with wildfire smoke and much-appreciated rain, I’ll read reading to the end of the Anne series. There are a lot of tiny moments I love in these books written like short stories. Not a lot of plot to hold them together, and what conflict does arise, it’s quickly dispatched with.
But when I went looking for a bit of childhood joy, that’s exactly what I wanted: to find that world where it all happens around you and you don’t have to worry. I wanted to remember rigging up tin can telephones between windows and building secret hiding places among the trees. I wanted to be back there, for a few moments, in a book I never finished reading.
I didn’t have time back then. I was too busy playing house and school, making friendship bracelets and selling lemonade. I needed to make those memories then so I can remember them now, when the world feels so much smaller and darker than it was. The 11-year-old Anne Shirley will always be there when you need the same reminder. She will help you invent a beautiful name for yourself and the patch of green around the block. She will remind you to write stories about princesses and fairies. Anne is there when we forget that things will probably be better tomorrow.
That’s not corny or fake. Anne gets everything she wants over the course of the series: a family, an education, a job, a husband, a family. She even gets a dress with puffy sleeves. If I like the later books less, it’s because I have to work so much harder to believe. Life is not that easy. Life is not that good.
But it is for Anne. She wants it to be good for everyone she loves, and you, too. I’m going to try harder to be that kind of Canadian.