In Progress: Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories (1)

ChristmasAnneChristmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories
L.M. Montgomery
Rea Wilmshurst, editor (1995)

“Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” from Anne of Green Gables (1908)
“Christmas at Red Butte” (1909)
“The End of the Young Family Feud” (1907)
“Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” (c. 1903)
“The Osbornes’ Christmas” (1903)

As December marched quickly on this year, I didn’t expect that I would have time to read anything seasonal this year, but on Christmas day I found myself with some spare time and my copy of Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories at hand. The volume is one of several collections  of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories edited by Rea Wilmshurst in the late 80s to early 90s. Most of the stories had been originally published in various newsletters or magazines, although in this collection, given the “Anne” theme, several episodes are chapters selected from the Anne books. I only read the first five this year, which allows me to save the rest for future Christmases.

There is something about Montgomery’s work that I always find delightful. A lightness, I suppose, or a feeling at the end of each tale that everything will be alright—a marked contrast to her own difficult adult life. However, unlike the Louisa May Alcott Christmas stories I wrote about last year,  I didn’t feel that they contained the saccharine quality that I had difficulty swallowing—a story may travel from despair to hope, but always as the result of making-do or of a benefactor already in play, not an unexpected and sudden reward for the mere virtue of doing good. That is, the stories felt realistic rather than mere fairy-tale. None of them were the same either—”The Osbornes’ Christmas” was not a tale of a family wishing they could receive Christmas despite the odds, but rather of a family that was so well-off they could no longer appreciate what they did have, and “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” was a story of making a Christmas while snowed in on a train.

The first story, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves,” is not actually a free-standing short story, but is pulled from Anne of Green Gables. As such, it works best in context of the book, but as a fan of Anne, I could read it over and over again with or without the remainder of the novel. It is such a lovely chapter depicting gentle Matthew and his determination to do something special for Anne, even though this means an attempt to overcome his overwhelming shyness.

“Christmas at Red Butte” is perhaps the most similar to the Alcott stories: a mother is in despair because she cannot afford to give her children Christmas. But where in Alcott a surprise benefactor might arrive, here the niece who makes a great sacrifice to let her cousins have some Christmas joy. Where Alcott speaks of Christmas miracles, Montgomery champions sacrificial giving, a message that sits more easily with me. Finally,  “The End of the Young Family Feud” tells what I find seems to be a typical Montgomery story: an old family argument and stubborn pride overcome by a mistake and/or a plucky young woman, and the discovery that the prickly old man is rather nice after all.

One realization as I read these: while I may have decided a few months back while reading Year of Wonders that I am not as much of a fan of historical fiction as I thought, I truly love reading old fiction where the time-frame is from within the author’s memory. Throughout these stories there are little details included that readers of the time would have thought nothing of, but which help provide a fuller—and more accurate—image of the past for the reader one hundred years later. In “The Osbornes’ Christmas,” Montgomery tells us “…Frank and Darby had stoned all the raisins…”, an activity that would never had occurred to me as necessary in this day of convenient store-bought, seed-free raisins, but doubtless Montgomery’s original readers would have known this chore themselves, or have observed others complete it. A writer from today would likely need to complete extensive research to discover this tidbit, and likely would have not inserted it so naturally into the narrative in the concern of ensuring the reader’s complete understanding. I can’t even imagine anyone using that phrasing! And this is only one small instance, one little detail. I’m sure if I paid better attention to my reading of old fiction, I could find many such instances of detail or description that would better illustrate the world of the past for me. A challenge for my future reads! And how lovely to know that I have more of these stories to look forward to next year.

Completed: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Kate Douglas Wiggin
US, 1903

Only two hours!” she sighed. “That will be half-past one; mother will be at Cousin Ann’s, the children at home will have had their dinner, and Hannah cleared all away. I have some lunch, because mother said it would be a bad beginning to get to the brick house hungry, and have Aunt Mirandy have to get me something to eat the first thing. It’s a good growing day, isn’t it?”

“It is, certain; too hot, most. Why don’t you put up your parasol?”

She extended her dress still farther over the article in question as she said: “Oh dear no! I never put it up when the sun shines. Pink fades awfully, you know; and I only carry it to meetin’ cloudy Sundays. Sometimes the sun comes out all of a sudden, and I have a dreadful time covering it up. It’s the dearest thing in life to me; but it’s an awful care.” (Chapter 1)

Rebecca Rowena Randall is charming. She is enthusiastic, eager to please, loyal, driven, able to captivate (most) all of those around her. Not quite an orphan—Rebecca’s mother is living, but with seven children is barely able to make ends meet—young Rebecca is sent to live with two spinster aunts who will raise her and see to her education. Rebecca enchants her driver as she makes her way from the train station to her new home in Riverboro, makes a lifelong best friend in Emma Jane, occasionally runs afoul of the hard-to-please Aunt Miranda, and manages to make loyal devotees of more than one adult resident. It is not hard to see many similarities with Anne of Green Gablesan orphan sent to live in a new home among strangers, who enchants those around her, gets into many scrapes, and has boundless enthusiasm. (Although the two are hardly identicalthere is no “Gilbert” in this book, for one.) Published five years after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, it is tempting to compare Anne with Rebecca but to make the comparison may be unfair to the earlier novel.

I found Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to be enjoyable reading, but a bit uneven. An early chapter made up entirely of Rebecca’s letters to her mother—although it is cute to see Rebecca’s childish misspellings, and works as a method of moving time forward—sticks out oddly in a largely narrated story. Had this method been used more consistently, it may not have seemed so odd to me. I was also disconcerted by the difficulty in determining the rate of the passage of time or Rebecca’s age throughout most of the novel. I can’t even say with certainty her age at the beginning (I believe it is ten), and the jumping from episode to episode was made without reference to how long Rebecca had been in Riverboro or how old she now was. This improved in the latter portion of the book, and once Rebecca left her local one-room schoolhouse for high school, it was always clear how old she was, which season it was, how much schooling she had left. Both Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm are episodic, covering roughly the same number of years and ages of their protagonists, but in my editions, Anne is about 50 pages longer than Rebecca. Without actually rereading both to verify, I suspect that those 50 pages make the difference in the evenness of moving from event to event–Montgomery has just a bit more room to smooth the transitions.

As a children’s book, I understand why Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not as well-known as Anne of Green Gables. Between the jumps in time and uneventful episodes such as a grammar lesson towards the beginning, I don’t think it would capture the attention of a child as well as Anne, although this is unfortunate as Rebecca herself is every bit as interesting as Anne. I also noticed little touches of subtle humor (my favorite: Rebecca’s father’s name was Lorenzo de Medici Randall and his twin brother Marquis de Lafayette Randall) that I’m pretty sure would go over the heads of most children (I certainly didn’t know who Lorenzo de Medici was at age 10).

Oh dear. I feel like I’ve been far more critical of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm than I intended to be, for I truly did enjoy reading it. I think it safe to say that if you have enjoyed reading Anne of Green Gables you would likely enjoy Rebecca. However, if I had to choose between the two, I would pick Anne. Which brings me to wonder—when is it fair to compare two books? I don’t wish to wander off into a lengthy tangent on this post, so I shall end here with a teaser for the next post (soon—it’s mostly written!) in which I shall discuss my opinions on comparisons. And hopefully justify those above … 😉

In which I recall books recently read

I’ve been so focused on my reading about reading (and about books) recently, that I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve actually read fiction recently. Or rather, not that recently, as I haven’t read any in nearly three weeks (although I intend to rectify that problem shortly).

In addition to being the year of my return to books in general, this also appears to be the year of my return to books past in particular. In some ways I feel guilty rereading old favorites—there are simply so many good books I’ve yet to read, why should I return to those I know well? There is, however, a great comfort in the familiarity of old books—a sense of returning home or returning to a simpler time and place. I also take encouragement in this suggestion from Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (Jack Murnighan): “Don’t have literary one-night stands. Go back again and again; the really good ones get better and better.” Of course, I am ready to acknowledge that Murnighan likely had in mind a higher class of literature than the favorites I have most recently re-read, but in some ways the truth still holds. Except for the most simple and shallow of books, there seems always something more to find.

I find this especially true in The Chronicles of Narnia, which I am slowly revisiting. Other than the first, most famous book, I believe I have only read any of the books once previously, most likely when I was still in elementary school (I can’t recall with certainty). Although the parallels between The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus were obvious to me at the time (as well as those of the creation story in The Magician’s Nephew with Genesis), I did not really recognize any of the other Christian themes or allusions made within the series. After all, I was mostly reading them because they were fun and I had an insatiable thirst for books. Reading them now, though, most recently having finished The Silver Chair, I can see a greater depth, the more subtle messages that are easy to gloss over as a child. For example, the adversary in The Silver Chair, who holds Prince Rilian captive and seeks to prevent Jill and Eustice from his rescue, is seen in two forms—that of a “most beautiful lady” and that of a vile green serpent. The ideas of duplicity and that evil may be disguised in beauty are not so complicated as to confuse a young reader, but point to a deeper meaning than simple surface reading suggests. The serpent imagery is also suggestive of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden—as that serpent brought her death, so this serpent kills Rilian’s mother. These readings are not necessary to the enjoyment of the story, but do add another level of enjoyment to be discovered on a subsequent read.

The other reread I finished recently, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle is not so deep. It is a simple story of a young woman’s yearning for freedom and love, and how she eventually finds both. As I was also beginning to read Reading Like a Writer at the same time, in which Francine Prose advocates “close reading,” I found myself attempting to slow down and really absorb the words of the story, instead of the hurried pace I more typically take. I found this to enhance both my enjoyment and appreciation of the story. Montgomery includes many poetical passages describing the woods surrounding the town of the story’s setting. By slowing down and looking at these passages closely, I was able to appreciate the beauty and whimsy of the descriptions. It also drew me to contemplate the hurried nature of contemporary life and the separation of so many of us from nature. We close ourselves off from nature, perhaps seeing it only through a television screen. Our ancestors, in contrast, were often intimately familiar with the world outside their doors, lacking the many distractions we have and the “modern conveniences” which allow us to ignore the natural world almost completely. After finishing this book, I am inspired to find and read a work (perhaps a series of essays?) on nature. My mom, an avid gardener, has several such books I could choose from, I am sure.