Monday, September 14, 2015

What I read on my summer vacation: L.M. Montgomery edition

"Green Gables"
In late spring, my family had the opportunity to visit Prince Edward Island for a day. A stop at the Green Gables Heritage Place was a must, and we were able to walk through the house that was the inspiration for Anne's first home. The surrounding countryside was beautiful with rolling green fields and rich red earth. We took a walk along the shore and stood on the sandstone cliffs as the waves crashed before us. We could catch the scent of the balsam firs while a songbird sang his heart out in a nearby field just like a scene from one of the novels. Some may think L.M. Montgomery's descriptions of her native heath were over-romanticized, but after seeing it with my own eyes, the Island is as picturesque as she had painted it to be.

In honor of the visit, I read two "new" stories by Montgomery - The Story Girl and The Golden Road.  These books are a two-part series involving the children of the King family. The narrator of the novels is Beverly King, a young boy who is sent with his brother from the big city of Toronto to the family homestead on the Island. Since their father was being transferred to South America for work, they were going to live with their Uncle Alec, Aunt Janet, and cousins.  The children's adventures make for a fun and charming read, and the author captures the ups and downs of rural life so well.

One of my favorite episodes in The Story Girl involves a prophecy that the world would end the following day. The "prophet" was the (in)famous leader of a sect in the United States (it figures). Also the fact that this prediction was published in the newspaper gave authenticity to the bad tidings, so the children were sent into a panic at the thought that they would soon meet their Maker. The account is very humorous but a little sad as well. The King family were staunch Presbyterians and regular churchgoers, but their beliefs stemmed from long-held family traditions rather than from saving faith. Thus the children had no gospel assurance and no hope other than their good deeds. Since Montgomery's husband was a Presbyterian minister, I began to wonder about her own religious upbringing and convictions.

That being the case and based on Kim's recommendation, I picked up Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio. This is not a light biography but a well-researched tome by an English scholar, which took decades to complete. I will warn you, though. If you imagine Maud's life must have been as happy as the novels she created, your bubble will be burst. Her life fluctuated between joy and sadness and was marked with a deep longing for love, friendship, and acceptance. The thought "What will people think?" was always in the back of her mind. Like Anne, she knew the pain of rejection for "not being a boy." She worked hard for every dollar to pay for college while a male relative had his education handed to him on a silver platter. Maud was a gifted writer and speaker, and yet she was taken advantage of by her first publisher and had her work disparaged by highbrow critics toward the end of her life. She met her husband, Ewan MacDonald at a time in both their lives when they were emotionally needy and became engaged out of that need. He was not a kindred spirit by any means, and their marriage was not a happy one. Although MacDonald was a Presbyterian minister who fought against the liberalization of the denomination, it appears that he suffered from debilitating depression which resulted in fear that he was not one of the elect. Maud, having been raised in a long line of Scotch Presbyterians, could not find any comfort in her faith either. She too suffered from emotional issues during a time when any form of mental illness was misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and swept under the rug for fear of the shame. The only treatments at the time were potentially addicting medications, which were later shown to exacerbate the problem. Based on the evidence, Maud tragically took her own life.

There were times when I was tempted to stop reading the bio, but I am glad I finished it. It's amazing that Maud was able to focus and write such delightful novels when she experienced so much sorrow and disappointment. Perhaps her writing was an escape from reality to a better place created by her pen. I will read her fictional works with new appreciation and look for glimpses of the author in her characters. I also have much greater respect for Maud's gift as a writer now that I know more of her own story.

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