If I’ve been keeping track properly – and there’s no guarantee of that – I just finished my fiftieth book of the year. I find this number a little disappointing, as I remember one school year when I was able to tell a teacher I’d read 90 books over the summer… What a nerd. I wasn’t working then (I was probably twelve or so)…
I used to always read The Lord of the Rings over Christmas. One thing I looked forward to about Christmas was curling up by the light of the tree and following Frodo and Sam across Middle-earth. It’s been three or four years now since I’ve been able to read it, partly because of pure burn-out after having had it open nearly every day for four years. Too, it’s another after-effect of The Map Debacle. Oh well – the book means too much to me to let a little thing like bitterness and mass betrayal ruin it for me forever! Unfortunately, nearly every page is drenched in memory. One of these days I’ll pick it up again. Maybe.
Last year I decided to do Christmas with another old favorite who remains a well-loved author: L.M. Montgomery. Gentle books, wise and lovely, with the mores of another time that make me feel like an uncivilized fishwife every time I swear or fail to make my bed… They’re perfect books for making one feel better about the human race, literary oases that refresh and strengthen the spirit. My aunts Jean and Rita gave me a hardcover edition of Anne when I was about twelve – Christmas, I think – and it was one of the best gifts I ever received.
I started the year by finishing Anne of Ingleside. Anne, all grown up, married, in a beautiful home surrounded by her children, isn’t the focus any longer; instead, her children begin to take center stage. It was sweet, and fun, and very dear, but at times hard to read because of the hints and omens of the future, a future I remembered all too well: the death of my favorite among the children in the still-far-off Great War. Ingleside still lingered with Anne, and there were glimpses of Diana and the twins and the college friends, all the folk who had become beloved through the series – but not enough. Not my favorite among the Anne books, this, but still solid, stolid, and lovely.
I did follow with Rainbow Valley, which was a little startling in its pure concentration on the kids after having read through the trials and tribulations of Anne as she grew up, married, had children, made a life and a home. Suddenly it was all nightmares and bosom friends and school tribulations again, with only glances at Anne. I missed her. Again, it was all dear and sweet, never sticky-icky – those children were not all angels, though the Blythes and Merediths were uniformly good-hearted … but … I wanted Anne, I guess. I did not continue on with the next (and last) book, Rilla of Ingleside. I remembered a somewhat absurd subplot with a spoiled Rilla (love that name) being landed with a baby, and I remembered too much about all the boys of age going off to fight. And I remembered a quote (deep gratitude to http://digital.library.upenn.edu – how fantastic):
“Laughter is gone out of the world,” said Faith Meredith, who had come over to report on her letters. “I remember telling old Mrs. Taylor long ago that the world was a world of laughter. But it isn’t so any longer.”
“It’s a shriek of anguish,” said Gertrude Oliver.
“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer sometimes – only sometimes,” she added under her breath.
Yeah – no. Couldn’t do it.
What I did move on to was The Blue Castle, possibly my favorite among L.M. Montgomery’s books, Anne included. (Anne of Windy Poplars, Pat of Silver Bush, A Tangled Web, and The Blue Castle, not necessarily in that order, are the ones I can’t live without, for the record.) I’ve always identified with Valancy, to the point that that was the screen name I used for a long time (till I found the other one I used for five years, which supplanted it). It’s a tremendous Mary Jane story, and especially when I, like Valancy, was 29, I loved every word. From poking around the internet, I find I’m far from alone; how sad. I found a reference to the book as a “fairy tale”; I suppose, in a way, that’s so, with the references to Bluebeard’s castle and the transformations of Valancy and Barney Snaith. It has dark edges, this romantic tale, not least of which is Valancy’s outright (richly deserved) loathing for her kin. Perhaps it’s all a little too happily resolved – which, however is a Montgomery trait I can’t argue with too hard. Reading is escape. I’ll have to hunt down the quote I know I kept about how worthless books steeped in despair are…
Continuing in the same vein as long as I could brought me to A Tangled Web. L.M. Montgomery was very very good at several things, and one of those was keeping a secret from her readers, building suspense until she finally decides to reveal all – which is always done in a satisfying manner. She did the same thing with Barney Snaith’s secret in Castle as she does here with the mystery of Hugh Dark and Joscelyn Dark (née Penhallow). I don’t know if the reality of what happened quite lives up to the anticipation – but it’s believable, in its way, and in order for the situation to be resolved requires some excellent plotting. I love Oswald Dark – what a character he is. Were I to indulge in fan-fiction about L.M.M., I think I’d center on him.
I’d forgotten the fly in the ointment, till I read this on TickledOrange.com:
I enjoyed this story up to the final line, which really disappointed me. It’s
sad when you realize an author you enjoy so much falls out of the idealized category
you have placed them in, and you realize they are no better than anyone else. They
may be a wonderful writer, but they may disgust you all the same with a xenophobic
remark that you unfortunately had to read. Heed my warning, if you don’t
want any illusions shattered, just drop the book before reading the last chapter
and enjoy the rest of the book without the disappointment you will likely incur
if you are anything like me.
How could I forget that last line? She’s right. Avoid if possible. It’s an unnecessary stain on a lovely book, and a true sign that while a lot of things have changed for the worse since L.M.M. wrote, not everything has. By a long mark. I don’t think it was so much xenophobic on her part, though, more part and parcel of the time and setting in which she lived and wrote. It’s not an excuse, any more than it is for the comments let fall throughout her writing about Catholics, Irish, Eye-talians, etc – but it’s a reason.
Which brings me to the last L.M.M. I read: Kilmeny of the Orchard.
(I far prefer the first edition’s cover:)
I remember swooningly adoring this book. I think I took it with me to Newfoundland last time I went (a library copy, which is probably illegal). This one didn’t live up to the memory. It was an early book of L.M.M.’s; boy takes over teaching position for sick friend, boy hears beautiful violin playing from an orchard, boy falls rump over teakettle in love with violinist, and is dismayed to find she is a fiercely protected mute girl who has hardly been out of her house since she was small. From then on it is a pitched battle as the hero seeks a way to make Kilmeny whole, and his. In this one the … I don’t want to say racism; perhaps ethnocentricity is a kinder word, or TickledOrange’s xenophobia… comes out more strongly than in most. This isn’t a book I could recommend to anyone with a drop of Italian blood in them. It’s a slender book, sweet (as always), and wrapped up a little too neatly – and without the depth of charm that carries the faults off in the other books.