A pilgrimage to Green Gables

This summer has been the summer of travel. Ironically because back in January, it was supposed to be a quiet travel year. And then weddings and work travel filled my calendar. I’m not complaining; I do adore traveling particularly when work is covering a part of the tab. Luckily enough, one work trip this summer happened to be to a conference held at the University of Prince Edward Island, a place that has been on my bucket list for a very long time.

Green Gables

Green Gables on a perfect summer day

I don’t remember how I found Anne. I imagine it was a gift from some aunt or another. I do remember ploughing through the series in 6th grade, begging Mom to run me back out to the mall and the book store for the next book in the series. L.M. Montgomery remains one of my favorite authors; her adult novels and short stories are just as lovely as the children’s series she is best known for. That said, re-reading Anne of Green Gables is like re-visiting an old childhood friend and never gets old.

I adored PEI. The only reason I left without begging the university to hire me was the recent 20 foot snowfall the island enjoyed over the winter. I am a very proud central New York native, growing up outside of the usual home of the Golden Snowball Award but even that number gave me pause. That and the strong breeze coming off the Gulf of the St. Lawrence while I was there. In the winter, I imagine that wind would just cut through you. That said, PEI in August was glorious and a fantastic place to visit for this current Floridian for a break from the awfulness that is the summer here.

I was here for work and I really did enjoy the conference. That said, the last day on the Island was the best because I got to go to Green Gables. The house is part of the Prince Edward Island National Park on the central north shore of the island. It is kept exactly as LMM described the house in the original story, right down to Anne’s room with the puffed sleeve dress hanging on the closet door. LMM never actually lived at Green Gables; the house and its farm were owned by distant cousins. You can also walk and visit the location of the home LMM lived in with her grandparents though only the foundation of that home still exists today.

One of the many gardens around Green Gables.

One of the many gardens around Green Gables.

The gardens were truly fantastic at both Green Gables and the LMM homestead. So was walking the Haunted Wood and Lover’s Lane; truly a moment when this book nerd tried to be cool and not completely geek out in front of her colleagues. However, It is one of those moments when you feel like you’re visiting a place you’ve been before as a child and it’s still as wonderful when you’re older, maybe ever better. I don’t know that I would have appreciated it as much when I was a kid. It made me appreciate LMM’s writing more and also to understand it again. As a kid, reading the books, the emphasis on the gardens and flowers and trees seemed effusive but having visited the island now, it makes perfect sense. The island was a riot of flowers and trees; everything in bloom and well groomed. Well-tended gardens are everywhere, in every yard and public space they can fit a garden. Someone I was traveling with noted that as a place that has bleak winters, having flowers everywhere when they can is probably important to them.

Not only did I explore Green Gables while I was there, but also drove through more of the PEI National Park outside of Green Gables (where we also randomly ran into a bagpiper on the side of one of the cliffs), had delicious seafood every time I ate it while there, explored a lot of Charlottetown on foot and in general was outside as much as possible because I could be. I would go back in a heartbeat. Not only a literary bucket list item crossed off but also a genuinely awesome place to visit that I hope to get back to some day.

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Influential Books

Not sure how I started thinking about this but I suspect it came from reading Lies My Teachers Told Me. It looks at textbooks used in high school history classes and all the ways they are inadequate to the task of teaching students history in the correct way. It made me reflect on my high school experience (and perhaps the fact this year is my 10 year reunion has me thinking about it too) and that moved me more towards the books I read in English class (overall, I don’t remember my history texts being the end all be all of my history classes). However, I soon realized limiting myself to books I read in class would leave out perhaps some of the most important. Books I stumbled into on library shelves, books given to me by relatives and friends and books that I, truth, can’t remember how I found them anymore. All I know is these books have permanent spots on my bookshelf where real estate is at a premium and I revisit them often. They have influenced me in some fashion – be it they introduced me to a genre of books that greatly influence me or the book itself I met at just the right point in my life. So, here in no particular order:

Anthem, Ayn Rand

Of all my classes over the years, 9th grade English stands on its own. It was a unique group of people with a teacher who pushed us further than anyone had up to that point. He expected more from us and while we moaned and groaned over it, I remember “By The Waters of Babylon” being particularly painful, we enjoyed it. It’s a class we still reference to this day and was the place I was first introduces to Anthem. This was, upon reflection, both a good and bad thing. Good because Anthem was pretty defining at the time. Think about, a bunch of freshman reading a book that is about creating individual identity, forging one’s way outside of the safety of one’s family and community, discovering how you are going to define yourself? It was also good because it introduced me to the dystopian genre, a genre I went on to devour over the following summer. This was before Hunger Games, Matched, Divergent. I had only the classics of the genre: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World. It’s a genre I still love today and kind of love that it’s mainstream now. Bad? Well, Ayn Rand comes with her own set of problems. Anthem is a novella and about as likable as Rand gets. It’s because of Anthem I worked to read Atlas Shrugged so hard. I succeeded but I definitely did not like Rand as much when I was finished. What had been such a celebration of individuality and exploration in Anthem just became the story of selfish, insufferable, unlikable people in Atlas Shrugged. But, I still take a summer afternoon and read Anthem, if only to remember my 15 year old self.

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

I sadly have no idea how I found Anne. Was it a gift? Did I buy it myself? Did I, horrors!, watch the movie and Road to Avonlea long before I read the first book? Anything is possible. I just remember begging my mother to drive me out to Waldenbooks in 6th grade because I HAD TO HAVE THE NEXT BOOK. I even recall buying the last three books at the same time as I just knew I was going to read them in record time. What would my life had been like if no precocious redhead hadn’t assured me there were no mistakes in tomorrow yet? Anne was the first fictional best friend I wanted, Gilbert definitely my first fictional boyfriend and Marilla the best aunt a girl could ask for. I wanted to live in these books so bad it wasn’t even funny. And hey, they were educational as well. Thank you Walter for where you fought in WWI as I distinctly remember it helping me on a test in school. Anne also introduced me to more of L.M. Montgomery’s books and short stories which I still pull out for comfort reads whenever I have the chance.

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

My aunt gave me this book in 4th grade. I have no idea why to be honest. Maybe she’d liked it as a kid and wanted to share it with me, her bookworm niece? For whatever reason, I am forever grateful. I didn’t get this book at first. WWII was just a vague concept in my head, the Holocaust a word that I knew was bad but didn’t really get why. Anne explained that to me. She also though was infallibly honest. I think we heroize her a bit too much. She was a teenager; she fought with her mother and her sister, she had a crush on the only boy she could, she was a brat at times, a saint at others. Her flaws were amplified by the situation she found herself in, as were her great moments. I appreciated her more when I was older and I marvel now. This girl, in hiding for persecution based only on her beliefs, wrote that, in spite of everything, she still believed that people were good at heart. One of my favorite moments of my semester abroad was visiting the Secret Annex and paying my respects to the dreamer who hid there. It brought into my world something I had only imagined in a book.

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

I came very late to Austen. Shocking I know and one of my best friend was the one who properly introduced me to her finally in high school. Once I’d had my first introductions, there was no going back. Austen’s brand of romance, humor and tone hits such a perfect cord with me, I read a lot of literature simply because it is marketed as “Austenesque.” I even read all the continuations, moderizations; I watch all the movies, no matter that I’ve seen five other versions. Hell, I own three versions of Pride & Prejudice on DVD. Well this isn’t my favorite of Austen’s work (Persuasion holds that honor), it was the first I read and therefore the one I owe for making me a Janeite.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire

I think I found this wandering the aisles of Borders. I had read Wicked and enjoyed it though it was a dense read and Confessions sounded as if it were along the same lines. Not so. Confessions was a much more approachable book, a book with a much clearer plot and the lines of the story, while still grey, a bit easier to follow. It was not the first time I had read a revisionist novel (clearly since I had read Wicked), but it was the first time I grasped how cool the concept could be. Iris was my kind of girl; a brilliant, plain Jane, someone who is just trying to do the right thing and who, in a moment of weakness, thinks about doing the selfish thing. Many years later, Confessions would inspire my senior thesis ensuring that fairy tale retellings will always fascinate me and also remind me that nothing is as black and white as we would like.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I think perhaps I saved the best for last. The Little Prince is a book you have to grow into. I had a copy on my shelves from an early age though I’ve no idea where it came from. I had read it, enjoyed it and then forgotten about it. Then it was handed to me in 11th grade French class and suddenly it was a book of wisdom, of life lessons, a book I could always turn to for comfort, for hope, for a touch of whimsy when I needed it. It teaches you that there is always more than one way to look at something, that you must always tend your baobabs, and that sometimes, those things staring you in the face are the very things you were looking for in the first place. It is a story of trying to find one’s way home and the things you discover along the way. While high school French class touched me in many ways, The Little Prince is the gift I treasure most and I’ll pull out my copies (one in English and in black and white, one in French with the color illustrations) and remind myself of its lessons whenever I have a bad day.

What would the world be like with no children’s books?

Among the blogosphere, the debate over children’s books versus young adult book versus adult books seems to have gotten very intense this year. It could just be me of course but it does seem to have erupted into a big “thing” and everyone has needed to weigh in on it. Personally, I don’t get what all the fuss is about. I enjoy reading – whether the book was meant for six year olds or ninety-nine years old, it makes no difference to me. In fact, some of the best reads of my life were meant for audiences much younger than me. Why adults seem so hung up on the latest young adult reading craze is beyond me. At least everyone is reading right?

Personally, some of my favorite books to this day are considered children classics though I didn’t appreciate them until I was much older. Reading Le Petit Prince in 11th grade French class changed everything – never mind I’d read it as a child and not understood what all the fuss was about. Perhaps it is only as a stressed out teen worried about getting into college that the baobab analogy makes sense. Anne Shirley guided me through 6th grade and now, her books take on new meaning as I trudge through my mid-20s with no Gilbert in sight but still plenty of laughs to be had. Doesn’t Anne seem like someone you’d like to be able to go visit with a bottle of wine after a hard day? She would remind me, as she once so comfortingly noted to Marilla, that tomorrow is a fresh day, there are no mistakes in it yet.

So thankfully, I’ve never walked away from what the rest of the world regulated to kids sections of book stores which is why I got to enjoy Harry Potter before my friends found him and directed them eagerly to The Hunger Games once a friend had already steered me in its direction. Sure, parents hem and haw over the appropriateness of these books for kids but even among the violence, these books are discussing fundamental problems all kids face – the search for who you are, who you are going to be and what you will stand for. I’m in my mid-20s and still figuring that out which is why I think these books, designed for kids, have such universal appeal. We never really stop wondering what we’ll be when we grow up and reading stories of brave, smart kids on the same path are comforting.

Especially since adult fiction just seem so depressing in comparison. It’s always a novel about death or depression or divorce. No one ever seems happy in contemporary fiction. There are ambiguous endings and the hero doesn’t always triumph in the end. I have enough of that in reality people; that is not what I like to find when I open up a book to escape for a few hours.

Take for instance the book I just finished, The Mysterious Benedict Society. Four smart (smarter than I will ever be), brave, resourceful kids go into danger to save the world and they win! Against all odds and reality, these four brilliant children do what no adult could do. They solve puzzles, connect the dots and act more bravely than I am (pretty) sure I would be able to in my (what the world thinks) vastly superior knowledge. It is slightly implausible? Sure, but why on earth would I want to read it if it was possible?