31 January 2012

Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge 2012

L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge *CAUTION: All Montgomery fans please bear with me to the end of this post. I might say something that will annoy you at the beginning, but I feel like you will like me at the end*

And with that ominous beginning: The end has come to the Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Carrie at Reading to Know. I have not finished the entire Anne series, but I plan to. I just began Anne of Ingleside last night and I will finish the other two whenever I get to them. I'm a little annoyed with myself for not picking up my speed. I have nowhere near as good an excuse as Carrie had (she's a busy mother of three AND she's taking a college course on C.S. Lewis). I just didn't get to them in time. That being said, I am SO glad I decided to participate. Let me explain my roller coaster relationship with Ms. Montgomery.

It all started when I was four years old. Seriously. I'm not trying to brag about the fact that I was reading at four or anything...Ok, I am actually bragging about the fact that I could read at four. Quite honestly though it had nothing to do with me, you could easily make the assumption that I had a brilliant teacher (I did. I was homeschooled. It was my mother.). All my life (yes, all four years of it) or at least all I could remember, I had been ogling The Call of the Wild and White Fang. It may have been...probably was...that they were shelved at eye level, but I really wanted to learn to read, in order to read them. And I did. At four. I couldn't tell you with any certainty if I remembered what I read, but I did enjoy them oddly enough. Since then I've imagined myself a real adventure story lover. I think this is some way to compensate for the fact that I am not actually an adventure lover. I've touched on this subject before in this post so it will suffice to say, I have only recently become ok with admitting that I am not the amazon warrior adventure woman I have fancied myself since I was four.

So, a little bit later when I had to read Anne of Green Gables for school you can imagine how I responded. One word summed up my feelings of this book: Snoozefest. So, I don't think I was quite "sophisticated" enough at the time to come up with a word like "snoozefest" but it was particularly boring. Especially to one who'd already been off on a dog sled ride across Canada filled with kidnapping, rescues, and the loyalty of dog and man. It was this book about a girl with red hair, who didn't like her red hair, and she was kind of a phony cause she made up all this stuff and how on EARTH could anyone actually believe that? I don't remember actively rebelling against reading the book (my mom could speak to that probably) but it wasn't my favorite. I didn't continue the series.

Still later, in fact less than a year ago, my book club read The Blue Castle. I was altogether confirmed in my youthful prejudices. This time it was less a feeling of "boredom." Thankfully, by this time I had fully embraced how much of a nature wimp I was and while I still enjoy an adventure story (especially the real life ones of Jon Krakauer...be still my beating heart!), I have come to appreciate the more relaxed and cozy type books. When I read The Blue Castle I was scandalized. The actual plot: *spoiler ahead* A young woman gets a note from her doctor saying she has a year left to live; realizes she has not been living her life fully and decides to live with gusto, including asking someone to marry her; they end up falling in love and discover *don't read any more if you still want to read this book!!!* that she isn't going to die after all! And they live happily ever after.

You have to admit (and I did admit) this is a cute "storybook" plot, complete with happy ending. There are also a few more "twists" involved that have an O'Henry feel to it. Unfortunately the ENTIRE thing was completely ruined for me because I hated the main character. No, hated is an understatement. I loathed the main character. She was one of the most selfish characters I have read in any book I've ever read. (Insert about fifteen minutes of thinking....) Yes, I can't think of one more selfish character than Valancy Stirling. The entire beginning of the book is devoted to how much she "hates" everything (including her mother) and how since she is an "elderly" 29 and no one will ever marry her, she no longer has any will to live. She holds an almost twenty year grudge against a cousin because of a childhood incident. When she finally leaves her mother's house it's done under terrible circumstances. She then switches churches, not to glorify God but just to offend her family. She also goes to help out a dying neighbor the whole town has shunned because she was pregnant out of wedlock. This would have redeemed her except that you get the feeling she is doing it again, to spite her family and society. Her whole philosophy is summed up in deciding that she will "please herself." Yes, quite a Christian attitude to have. None of this "serving others" stuff.

Now, please don't hear me minimizing the difficulties Valancy was in. Her family was awful. Her community was awful. They made snide comments. They were constantly talking about her "old maid" status. They never let her go anywhere. They never let her do ANYTHING. They never let her be alone for a while. They were revealed to be insanely small-minded and judgmental. I mean, it wasn't fun. But this only explains why she rebels, it in no way excuses. For consideration, here are some things she did have: A mother who cared about her (did she show it well? Absolutely not, but she wasn't tying her up in the basement or anything); a house; food; water; clothing. I just think she could have done a better job being grateful for what she DID have and not whining and complaining about what she didn't.

Shall I tell you how I really feel? I did NOT like The Blue Castle. Like any book club I started to be "ok" with it after discussion just because there were other "good" lessons to garnish from the book. For example: Valancy dreams of a gigantic palace that she will one day escape her, but when she finally finds it, it is far less opulent than in her dreams. So, in ways she is learning contentment. But I was already terribly biased due to the character, and I was ready to throw Montgomery out of my life forever.

Thankfully Carrie saved the day. She hosted the LMM reading challenge as you all already know, and for some reason I decided to give Montgomery one last shot. I was SO glad that I did. I feel like the scales have fallen from my eyes! Montgomery is brilliant! Absolutely brilliant. I still don't know what happened with The Blue Castle and I think I'll never know and I don't care! I've met Anne. I mean, I've been re-acquainted with Anne, and she's so much better than I remember her, or perhaps I've grown up.

I want to go through each book and talk about high and low points of each, tell you all which are my favorites, which one I liked the least, give you the basic plots of all of them. Some day I will do this, but I think right now I will focus on why my faith in Ms. Montgomery has been restored (I always secretly had a little because my mom liked her so much) and why she has a new devoted fan.

When I read fiction (good fiction) about half of my brain surrenders to the basic art of storytelling. I'm a sucker for a good story. I think this is part of the human condition and as I don't know many people who aren't, I'll move on. The other half of my brain; however, is my never silent analytical self. While reading the Anne series both halves were loudly cheering! The story itself is just...fun. It's cozy. It's cute. The characters are lovable. Even the obnoxious ones you love to hate! It's just a quiet lovely story of an orphan girl who found a home in a small town and slowly wins the heart of everyone she comes in contact with. Well, ok, there are a few exceptions. We see her through her teens, through college, through marriage, through death of friends and family, through friendship, and through motherhood. There's nothing epic about them really, just a small life lived joyfully.

What really wins me over to them is the fact that the analytical half of my brain was over joyed by the character of Anne. She is a role model in her seemingly effortless joy in times of sorrow. Don't get me wrong, she isn't sinless and she isn't always happy. There aren't times when she falls into the "depths of despair." In her childhood she even claims that her life "is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes." In her adulthood she goes through the loss of her first child. Throughout it all she maintains a strength of character that overcomes her circumstances. She remains real enough that the reader can identify with her, yet she's enough of an ideal to make the reader want to be better.

There is a scene in Anne of the Island, *spoiler ahead! Turn back if you haven't read it!!* which, without having read the last two, I feel pretty safe in saying, was my favorite of the series, where Anne's friend Ruby Gillis is dying. There is no question between the two girls that Ruby will be in heaven, but she is afraid to go there. Anne's take on this is that of course Ruby would fear to leave this world!

"She could not tell comforting falsehoods; and all that Ruby said was so horribly true. She WAS leaving everything she cared for. She had laid up her treasures on earth only; she had lived solely for the little things of life -- the things that pass -- forgetting the great things that go onward into eternity, bridging the gulf between the two lives and making of death a mere passing from one dwelling to the other -- from twilight to unclouded day. God would take care of her there -- Anne believed -- she would learn -- but now it was no wonder her soul clung, in blind helplessness, to the only things she knew and loved."[1]
This nailed it for me. It instantly made me a fan. Yes, it’s a mite unorthodox. A bit earlier in the scene it’s taken for granted Ruby would be in heaven because she went to church. I’m not (necessarily, though there are exceptions) looking for orthodoxy in my fiction. A mind awake can always filter that through the scriptures. I do look for art that glorifies God, and I think particularly this scene does. It alone made reading the series completely worthwhile, and that was just one example of some of the beautiful philosophy put forward by Montgomery.

I’m sorry that the month is over before I could finish the very last two Montgomery books, but I’m glad I participated. I’m also glad I did not let The Blue Castle be my final interaction with Ms. Montgomery. She deserved so much better.

[1] Montgomery, Lucy Maud Anne of the Island (Mass Market Paperback: Seal Books 1983)


CrossEm said...

Wow! That's quite a conversion experience.
I admit that I was drawn in by the charm of Blue Castle. But I admire your ability to pierce through the charm and see the characters and morals in the book for what they really are.
As for Anne...maybe someday I'll go there again. ;)

BerlinerinPoet said...

Well, if I didn't really hate the character I would be totally woo'd by the charm.
You should! There's always next January! Well, you know...unless there isn't.