October 20, 2014

L.M. Montgomery's free-range kids

I'd never gotten around to the last two novels in the Anne of Green Gables series. My brother Joe recently did. He didn't think much of Rilla of Ingleside or Kevin Sullivan's adaption (Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story).

I'd seen the latter too, which was in no way encouraging. Sullivan's Anne of Avonlea (also known as Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel) is a good example of how to deviate from the source material while keeping true to its substance and spirit.

The Continuing Story is a good example of getting it all wrong. Sullivan manages to turn Anne, as Kate puts it, into a "bucolic female James Bond." Yes, it's supposed to be about Rilla, but the lead had to be Megan Follows. Like I said, it's a mess.

Rather, Joe points to Rainbow Valley as the standout in the post-Green Gables books. So I clicked over to Project Gutenberg and downloaded it. And he was right. Rainbow Valley is a real gem.

As Joe points out, Rainbow Valley is less about the staid Blythe kids than the wacky Merediths. They're the offspring of the eccentric and widowed minister. Following the death of his wife, the children mostly raise themselves (not a social worker in sight).

Things only get dicier when Mary Vance shows up, the orphan girl they take in like a lost dog.

Mary Vance is the alternate universe version of Anne. While Anne coped by filling up on literature, focusing her mental energy inwards and fueling her imagination, Mary Vance turns hers outwards, with the goal of controlling the chaotic world around her.

Not surprising, given an upbringing that makes Anne's pre-Green Gables life look comfortable by comparison. Nowadays, Mary Vance would be cast as the pitiful victim on a Law & Order episode, a serial killer's childhood flashback on Criminal Minds.

"My grandfather was a rich man. I'll bet he was richer than your grandfather. But pa drunk it all up and ma, she did her part. They used to beat me, too. Laws, I've been licked so much I kind of like it."

Or pumped full of Ritalin and handed over to Child Protective Services. But a century ago, a tough childhood gave a kid "character." Indeed, Mary Vance isn't looking for excuses. To be a "victim" is to not be in control, and that's that last thing she wants.

Mary tossed her head. She divined that the manse children were pitying her for her many stripes and she did not want pity. She wanted to be envied.

With her considerable wit focused so long on day-to-day survival, the attendant niceties long ago went by the wayside. And so unconstrained by a still nascent superego, her id leaks out all over the place. She definitely gets all the good lines.

"Mr. Wiley used to mention hell when he was alive. He was always telling folks to go there. I thought it was some place over in New Brunswick where he come from."

"I haven't got anything against God, Una. I'm willing to give Him a chance. But, honest, I think He's an awful lot like your father, absent-minded and never taking any notice of a body most of the time, but sometimes waking up all of a sudden and being awful good and kind and sensible."

"Give me Daniel [in the Lions' Den]. I'd rusher have it 'cause I'm partial to lions. Only I wish they'd et Daniel up. It would have been more exciting."

"If one has to pray to anybody it'd be better to pray to the devil than to God. God's good, anyhow so you say, so He won't do you any harm, but from all I can make out the devil needs to be pacified."

As Miss Cornelia puts it, "If you dug for a thousand years you couldn't get to the bottom of that child's mind."

But Mary Vance hardly has the story all to herself. In the second half of the book, the misadventures of the untethered Meredith kids take over the story, along with the emergence of a possible romantic companion for their father (a sweet note to end on).

Reading Rainbow Valley is like listening to a gossipy small-town newspaper read aloud, the chronicler now and then stepping back from the narrative to offer an aside or two about her subjects. But always with the best intentions--and honest empathy--in mind.

Although I shy away from the omniscient point of view, Montgomery's relaxed command of the narrative is such that the "head hopping" never bothers me, and even imbues the story with a touch of magical realism that places it apart from the real world.

Though with the Great War just over the horizon, the book briefly breaks the reverie at the very end with a haunting bit of foreshadowing.

This was certainly a great part of Montgomery's appeal in Japan. Hanako Muraoka completed her translation of Anne of Green Gables during WWII. The Japanese edition was published in 1952. "Reality" was one thing they didn't need any more of.

Though as far as reality goes, Rainbow Valley hews closer to my own childhood (considerably less than a century ago) than the nanny state reigning today. Back then, the only parental constraint imposed on us as we flew out the door was: "Be home by dinnertime."

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
10/28/2014 1:26 PM   
"Though as far as reality goes, Rainbow Valley hews closer to my own childhood (considerably less than a century ago) than the nanny state reigning today. Back then, the only parental constraint imposed on us as we flew out the door was: 'Be home by dinnertime.'"

This is off-topic in a sense, but Eugene's comment reminded me of classic Bill Cosby.

I have often pondered my feeling of connection to Bill Cosby's pre-Cosby Show stand-up comedy. In truth, I don't relate all that well to The Cosby Show, but Cosby's stories about growing up in Philadelphia, making go-carts, playing highly dangerous games, and getting freaked out by horror movies: I totally relate to all that!

On paper, this makes no sense. Growing up, I was a suburban kid in a fairly well-to-do neighborhood (this can get confusing since our Depression-era raised father acted like we lived in poverty and there were neighborhoods with bigger houses; still . . .). I should relate to The Cosby Show more than stories about Cosby's high school shop class.

One reason I do relate is that I listened to pre-Cosby Show Cosby growing up. I associate the two things in my mind (ah, nostalgia). But another is the unsupervised-freedom-amongst-hoards-of-children state-of-affairs that Eugene mentions. It may not have been Philadelphia or San Francisco, but we kids of the neighborhood pretty much acted like it was. To this day, any reference to "9th Street Bridge," "Old Weird Harold," and "I told you that story to tell you this one" makes me crack up.