Thursday, March 20, 2014

10 Books for the "Anne of Green Gables" Fan

True book lovers inevitably reach several crises of a distinct nature in their lifetimes - finishing every published scrap by a favorite author and facing the emptiness of a life spent praying for someone to unearth something new in an attic or basement or somewhere. Anne of Green Gables and its sequels have been favorites of mine since I was a kid, and while there are of course the other thirteen novels, several hundred short stories, poetry, and journals that L. M. Montgomery has left us, there is, unfortunately, a finite number of them. My personal favorites, other than Anne, are The Blue Castle and the Emily books (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, Emily's Quest). When one gets to the end of Montgomery's wonderful writing, what is there left? These ten novels should please readers who miss our dear friends, Anne Shirley, Emily Byrd Starr, and Sara Stanley.

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom - Louisa May Alcott
Assuming that one has already read Little Women, the next best bet for the L. M. Montgomery fan is Eight Cousins, about young orphan Rose who goes to live with her new guardian and finds herself surrounded by eight boisterous cousins, all blond boys, and its sequel, Rose in Bloom, which continues Rose's story into womanhood. Alcott excelled at finding both the drama and the humor in the domestic lives of young women, just as Montgomery did. I also recommend An Old Fashioned Girl.

The Deepening Stream - Dorothy Canfield
Enormously prolific, influential, and popular in her lifetime, Dorothy Canfield has been unjustifiably forgotten. In this bildungsroman, Matey is the child of a difficult marriage, who nevertheless grows up as a cultured young woman, but one who must navigate the emotional dark forests of life largely on her own. Canfield's writing may strike some as old-fashioned, but her themes are timeless and her heroines are complex, deeply human women, struggling to gain a foothold in a man's world. I also recommend her children's novel, Understood Betsey.

Lucy Gayheart - Willa Cather
Willa Cather, though decidedly more urbane, was preoccupied with many of the same themes that preoccupied Montgomery - the tension between artistic ambition and social expectations for women, the difficult choices women faced when they did have talent and ambition, and the natural landscape as an internalized dreamscape as alive as any human being. In Lucy Gayheart, Lucy is a talented pianist who leaves her small Nebraska hometown behind to pursue a career in Chicago, where she meets a brilliant singer, Clement Sebastian. I also recommend My Antonia.

Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda
Deledda is not well-known to the English-speaking world and it's high time this Nobel Prize-winner was introduced. Like Montgomery, Deledda had her magic island, in her case Sardinia instead of Prince Edward Island, and also like Montgomery, this island would infuse her work with an extraordinary appreciation for the natural world as a living being. In Reeds in the Wind, the Pintor sisters grow quietly older in their decaying house attended by their guilt-ridden servant, Efix, when their nephew, Giacinto, arrives, with somewhat unscrupulous hopes regarding the family fortune.

Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
My favorite Gaskell novel is a series of comic vignettes about a group of spinster ladies living in the provincial town of Cranford. Gaskell and Montgomery shared a sense of humor, one founded in the every-day, that was as appreciative of the follies and foibles of human beings as it was of the tragicomedy of domestic disasters. One hopes that Montgomery knew this novel because she would have undoubtedly enjoyed it. The mini-series starring Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Imelda Staunton, is absolutely delightful.
Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton Porter
In this Indiana-set novel, Elnora is a poor young woman, living with her deeply embittered mother who blames her for her father's death. Elnora, however, is determined to escape her miserable home by earning enough money to attend high school. She does so by capturing moth specimens in the Limberlost swamp and selling them to collectors. This is a classic of the young girl's novel, a genre that has since morphed into the young adult novel, but its spirit is a hardy one, though it may have gone out of fashion. There is also a related novel about one of the minor characters, Freckles

An Unsuitable Attachment - Barbara Pym
Pym's work is currently undergoing a deserved renaissance. In this, my favorite of her novels, Ianthe Broome is an attractive librarian with no shortage of potential husbands, in particular the new minister Rupert Stonebird, but Ianthe causes a scandal when she gets involved with a much younger man with disreputable habits instead. Pym utterly ignored the literary fashions of the 1960s, when this book was written, reminding us that one doesn't need to follow the herd of writers and critics to write a classic novel.

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
I never miss an opportunity to encourage readers to track down a precious copy of this exquisite novel. Set in a rural community in Shropshire immediately after the Napoleonic wars, the novel follows Prue Sarn, a spirited young woman whose prospects for marriage and respect in the community have been destroyed by her having been born with a hare-lip. Prue learns to read and write from the local wizard, whose beautiful daughter has captured the eye of Prue's brother Gideon, who is as consumed by greed as he is by lust. This is another novel that I dearly hope Montgomery knew.

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
The reputation of Jean Webster's novel has declined dramatically in recent decades, with many critics deriding its sentimental story as maudlin and its politics as anti-feminist, but frankly I think this novel is deserving of a reassessment. Judy Abbott is an orphan whose anonymous benefactor agrees to send her to college, an incredible luxury for a penniless woman without family, provided that she write to him regularly and make no attempt to uncover his identity. A central theme of the novel is self-determination, with Judy striving to achieve a successful career, pay back her benefactor, and establish herself independently - which sounds suspiciously like one of the most important feminist agendas of its time.

So, never fret dear fellow Anne of Green Gables devotees. While we may exhaust Montgomery's oeuvre, she is in company with a host of great writers who shared her extraordinary gifts for beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a gentle and cheeky sense of humor, an appreciation for the drama of domestic life, and vibrant, complicated, feminist heroines.

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