Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pretty Little Civilized World

For book club this week we took a break from young adult post-apocalyptic tyrannies to spend some time in the lovely, civilized world of late 1800s Prince Edward Island (eastern Canada).
a postcard from our 1985 visit
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, is the story of an exuberant little red-haired orphan. She is eleven when she comes to live with older, never-married brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, at their home called Green Gables. They were expecting a boy, someone who could be of use to Matthew on the farm. Matthew was 60 and had occasional heart problems, so it seemed like a good solution. Anne Shirley was sent as a result of miscommunications. She was left on the railroad platform, and Matthew couldn’t think what to do except take her home for the time being. On the way, she chattered in a way that should have overwhelmed the taciturn female-fearing man. But he was charmed by her.
Marilla was stern and disgruntled about the mistake, and made plans to return Anne, and drove the next day to take her to the neighbors who had been the go-between. On the drive she learned a little of Anne’s history. She was the daughter of two poor school teachers. Her mother had died of a fever, shortly after Anne’s birth; her father succumbed to the same fever a few days later. There was no extended family.
She was taken in by various willing persons over the years, but not adopted. It wasn’t easy. She got very little schooling, although she read well enough to discover poetry to memorize and had a dramatic vocabulary. She had served as nursemaid to a woman with multiple sets of twins. When the father of that household died, she ended up in the asylum (orphanage), which wasn’t Dickensian grim, but it was pretty hopeless. As Anne would say, “No scope for the imagination,” which was an essential of life.
When they got to the neighbor’s house, they learned Anne could be sent on as a household helper to a family Marilla didn’t approve of. She had thought it was reasonable to send her back to the asylum (although Matthew was in favor of keeping her from the start), where she might have another opportunity for adoption. But to knowingly place her with a family where Marilla knew Anne would be ill used was beyond what conscience would allow.
So Anne goes back to Green Gables, on trial, but really with no chance of ever being sent away. She tries in amusing fashion to be a good child, but she’s not very good at it. Her troubles and trials are the subject of the amusing book. She always means to be obedient, but she’s heedless, headstrong, and often lost in a world of dreams.
What I love about this book (series of books, actually) is the beauty of the civilized world. It’s something we see so seldom in literature, I’m concerned a generation will grow up without exposure to what ought to be normal.
Even though the Cuthbert/Shirley trio is not a traditional family—married mother and father raising their own children—it is essentially a healthy family story. We see Marilla working through the challenges of balancing discipline and guidance with understanding and forgiveness. She becomes less stern as her love for Anne grows, along with her confidence in Anne and in her own decisions. Matthew always just adores Anne, but he lets Marilla do the raising. We see Anne being taught from scratch about God and prayer and church-going. We see her learn to love learning in school. We see her chattering and hyperactivity temper as she grows. Without squelching her spirit in any way, Anne becomes more civilized. It’s a very satisfying outcome—the kind of satisfaction parents hope for.
The neighbors are integrated into Anne’s world, with complaints that turn to eventual approval—because Anne is just irresistible. She’s less annoying that Pippi Longstocking. She’s less sickly sweet than Pollyana. She’s not as unreal as Little Orphan Annie. She’s just a lovable, vibrant little girl. And the story, while more episodic than dramatic, is totally believable.
There are no villains in this world. Not even in her past. She may have been overworked and unloved, but she was never beaten or otherwise physically abused. Because her world is made up of civilized people; some people are less kind or more selfish than they should be, but mostly these are people just going through life in a way they see as right. In just about every way that matters, this out-of-time-and-place story is much more real than the gritty “real world” stories we see so much today.
The setting is idyllic. Near the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but mostly semi-rural farmland, with tree-lined lanes, forests, flowery fields. Lots of green hills dotted with little white churches.
Here we are at the Green Gables House as tourists in 1985
Cavendish, PEI, Canada
We’ve been there. Mr. Spherical Model spent two years as a missionary in eastern Canada, with the first half year or so on Prince Edward Island. We took a trip there, when son Political Sphere was just about learning to crawl, and visited the families he had known there during his mission. We spent a day at Cavendish, where the Green Gables house is. The house itself was the home of relatives of author Lucy Maud Montgomery. So the meadows, forests, fields, and the house itself, are taken from this real place.
It’s cold generally. The tourist season for the beach is about a month. We got there in late August, and it was too cold to go in the water. There’s plenty of snow and cold and discomfort. But the book, nevertheless, is deliciously full of warmth and comfort.
It’s Christmastime, and cold—even here in Texas right now. Yet when you think of Christmas, you think of warmth and comfort despite the outer cold. That is what civilization can do—living in a way that values caring for others, strengthening families, and honoring God. It’s a kind of beauty and warmth we need to spread.

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