Monday, March 10, 2008

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Hang on to your hats, kids. This is going to be one long review. I don’t think I can cut it down.

The first thing I’m going to write is that I thought this was a very satisfying read. I am a huge Anne fan and I approached this prequel with natural reluctance and a bit of dread. As I read this story I thought quite a bit about why Anne means so much to me. I think part of it has to do with what I was reading when my mom plopped this book into my hands. She had already exposed me to Judy Blume and Cynthia Voight and I tore through all that those two had to offer at the time. (I’m about 8th grade here.) Anne was so different. It was, dare I say, historical. And romantic! I fell for the horse and carriages, handmade dresses, unusual language, and orphans. Add to it that Canada was completely mysterious to me. I loved how Anne is so smart and yet clueless about her heart or personal feelings. (Seriously, the formula for all of my favorite YA novels.) She’s independent and outspoken and unstoppable. And hilarious! I still admire her. I admit she became somewhat boring and irritating in her later years, but those first 3 books just rock.

[before I go on... Thanks to 7-Imp for posting a link to this great podcast of the release party for the book. It's about 20 minutes long and there is a brief interview with Budge. No spoilers! Go listen!]

possible spoilers from this point on

Back to the book. We meet Anne’s adorable parents, Walter and Bertha Shirley. They are everything you know they were going to be: smart, young, poor, hopelessly in love, and utterly overjoyed with their baby girl. Walter teaches high school geometry, which he loves loves loves. Of course you remember that Anne despised geometry. Bertha taught high school English and literature until she married Walter. Childbirth does not go well for her and so Joanna Thomas is hired to help out around the house. Mrs. Thomas is amazed (and jealous) at the loving home that Walter and Bertha have. Here are a husband and a wife who love and respect each other. This is not something known to Mrs. Thomas.

When Bertha dies of fever (influenza?), and then shortly thereafter Walter, Mrs. Thomas is the one who takes Anne, in part to have a piece of her beloved Bertha Shirley, but mostly to have their furniture and clothes for her own home and family. The Thomases have 3 daughters and the eldest is Eliza. Eliza loves Anne immediately and becomes her primary caretaker. It is Eliza who forms Anne’s character to appreciate stories, words, and beauty in the world. It is from Eliza that Anne learns to love and be loved. They only have 5 years together before Eliza leaves. Though Anne is bitter and heartbroken, Eliza’s influence has set Anne’s life in motion.

Anne is 5 and by this time Mrs. Thomas has had 4 boys. The older girls are all out of the house and it’s Anne’s job is to take care of the boys as well as dozens of other chores around the house. Mr. Thomas, as we are well aware, is a drunk. But here’s where the surprises came for me. We learn a great deal about Joanna and Bert Thomas. We learn who they were prior to marriage and how their lives have become what they are. Sure, bad choices were made, but they lead extremely difficult and poor lives. Mr. Thomas physically abuses Mrs. Thomas as well as the eldest boy (who is 1 year younger than Anne). While Anne is emotionally and verbally abused, she is never assaulted. Mr. Thomas made a solemn promise to Eliza when she left that he would look out for Anne, and he does actually kind of do this. He’s not perfect, but he tries. He’s also the first person to talk to Anne about her imagination and dreaming. I really found this fascinating. These are multifaceted characters. You could easily hate Mr. Thomas, and Anne certainly does not love him or his wife, but it’s not all black and white. This is a repeated theme.

After Mr. Thomas dies we know that Anne is given to Mrs. Hammond… who has 3 sets of twins… plus two older girls… for a grand total of 8 kids under the age of 4. Anne is 9 at this point, well versed in childrearing and the generally sucky unfairness of life, and has no romantic notions about how this could possibly be better than the Thomas household. Anne managed to go to school a little bit with the Thomases. A man from the school board (politely) forced Mrs. Thomas to send Anne to school, as it is law in Nova Scotia. Anne is keenly aware of this fact and throws it in Mrs. Hammond’s face when she tells Anne she cannot go to school because she is needed at home. Mrs. Hammond is not cruel like Mrs. Thomas. She’s a girl from Maine who married a lumberman and found herself, at 24, with 8 kids in Canada in the middle of a forest. My sanity would be a distant friend, too. Life with the Thomas brood was rather horrible, but it is Mrs. Hammond’s story that packs the most heart-wrenching punch.

The adults in Anne’s life are not just the Thomases and the Hammonds. There are 3 rather lovely teachers with whom Anne has brief contact but who flame her desire to learn. There is Katie Maurice. There are a few neighbors who genuinely love and help Anne. She is, after all, a peculiar and unusual child. Mr. Johnson is perhaps the most romantic and interesting of these characters. He knows Anne when she is with the Thomases and takes it upon himself to teach her 5 new words each time they see each other. It is he who first uses the phrase “depths of despair”.

After the Hammonds Anne finally goes to the orphan asylum. By this time, Anne’s spirit is nearly broken. What more can she handle? Thankfully, because she’s a bit of a workhorse (by force as a very young child and then habit by this time) she is selected to be the “11-12 year old hardworking girl” for a farmer brother and sister on Prince Edward Island. This announcement revives our Anne and in the final chapter she embarks on her journey from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island to the bench at the Bright River station waiting for Matthew and her new life.

This book is not marketed for youth. I really see no problem with a 12 year old reading this, but much younger fans of Anne may miss some of what Budge Wilson was trying to convey. Before Green Gables is very much the story of the adults in Anne’s life, and how their lives shaped Anne’s. Adult stories and issues may just breeze over the heads of those much younger than 12.

Kudos to Budge Wilson. It isn’t an easy task to write a prequel to such a beloved book and have it turn out this remarkably well. If you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables, don’t start here. This book is really for those who already know Anne. Shall I say, for Kindred Spirits.

[a note: I’m sure I missed several things, but one part of the story I did not discover is that period of time where Walter is away from Bertha shortly after Anne’s birth. In Anne of the Island, Anne goes to the little yellow house in Bolingbroke and is given a packet of letters from the woman living there. There was no mention, to my knowledge in the ARC that I read, of Walter leaving in the prequel.]

In related Anne prequel madness, Sullivan Films is producing their own prequel. This one ain't endorsed by LM Montgomery's estate. Can you blame them after this fiasco? Oh yes, I'll still watch it. Anne at 60 reflecting on her life? What's that? She is a "pawn in a legal battle"? Oh honey, sign me up. I need more opportunities to shout at my TV and shake my fist in the air. I don't care if it does have Shirley MacLaine. Michelle & Kerry & Deban, we're having an anti-party for this.


Laura Lutz said...

Okay, as a passionate Anne fan, I really didn't want to read this at all, but now you're making me think I should give it a chance. Grumble, grumble.

Word! on the dissing of Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story. Total crap.

It's all downhill without Colleen Dewhurst!

joanna said...

Right on! Seriously, the prequel is nice. I thought she captured Anne and LM Montgomery's voices well.

Anna said...

I just read this book, and enjoyed it a lot. If I had read your review first, I would have been very disappointed since you gave away the entire story.