Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Adventure classics -- When you feel like an orphan

Anne of Green Gables

by L.M Montgomery


When children’s author Grace Lin visited the Allen, Texas, library earlier this year, her young fans demanded to know what her favorite book had been as a girl. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants said, “Anne of Green Gables.” Out in the audience, I did a double take. Lucy Maude Montgomery’s 1908 story of a Canadian orphan the favorite book of a modern Chinese-American girl?

Then I realized it was the perfect choice for Lin. Growing up in the only Asian family in her upstate New York town, she must have felt as out of place as Montgomery’s red-haired orphan Anne Shirley. Fashions and mores have changed since Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (two of the most repressed characters ever penned) received Anne instead of the boy they had intended to adopt in the small Prince Edward Island town of Avonlea. But the universal feeling of being the outsider has made Anne’s story a perennial favorite.

The story is grittier than the likes of its spin-off movies, trivia games, even cookbooks, might imply. Anne’s parents died when she was an infant and she suffered episodes of abusive foster care before being placed for adoption. At the time, the status of adopted children was closer to that of indentured servants than family members, as Montgomery indicates by the casual way in which the Cuthberts place their order for a boy to help aging Matthew with his farm work.

Anne welcomes even the prospect of such an “adoption,” but the Cuthberts nearly return her when they find their message garbled and the boy they expected has turned out to be a girl. Only the tiniest chink in the emotional armor of Matthew and Marilla saves Anne from a return to the life she had hoped to escape. (Matthew and Marilla are unmarried brother and sister, not having had even the courage to marry or leave the family homestead.)

Montgomery was already a prolific short story author when Anne of Green Gables, her first novel, was published. I haven’t found any indication that Montgomery had red hair, but the novel revisits some of her history in deeper ways. Like Anne’s, Montgomery’s mother died before she was old enough to remember her. Montgomery’s father transferred custody to his wife’s parents in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.  Although Montgomery dedicated Anne of Green Gables “to the memory of my father and mother,” she and her father never fully reconciled.

Anne, in fact, never appears to grieve for the loss of parents she never knew. But her adventures as she rises to the status of cherished family member and eventually savior has made her story a perennial favorite. And it’s not just a Canadian and American phenomenon. Australian professor Akiko Uchiyama’s comparison of Montgomery and her first Japanese translator Muraoka Hanako, cites Anne of Green Gables as “arguably the most popular translated girls’ book in Japan.” (Also see Dr. Uchiyama’s discussion in Girl Reading Girl in Japan, available at

The adventures of Anne are, of course, widely available at Amazon. Way to go, red-haired orphan!

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