CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 8. . . October 27, 2017
When Lucy Maud Montgomery first published Anne of Green Gables in 1908, she had no idea that the novel would become a bestseller and eventually a classic and would make her famous. She did not know, either, that this novel would typecast her. Although she went on to write novels for adults, novels like The Blue Castle, Anne's House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside, to name just three, she became "locked into a children's market", according to Montgomery scholar Mary Rubio. At the time when Maud was choosing older heroines and mature themes, she was being "demoted" to the children's sections of book stores and libraries.
Although Montgomery's style makes her writing accessible to young readers age 10 and up, not all of her work is of interest to children and young adults. Of the 21 short stories selected for this collection, only seven are specifically aimed at children and "tweens". Most of these were published in church magazines for a juvenile audience. (The stories in After Many Years were "long-lost" in the sense that they were in Montgomery's scrapbooks and had never been published in a book.)
Although the strong moral messages in the seven stories for children aren't subtle, children of today may enjoy them because of their vivid characters and intriguing "olden day" settings. These stories are: "The Chivers Light" (1924), "What Happened at Brixley's" (1906), "Janie's Bouquet" (1907), "Jean's Birthday Party", (1907), "Maggie's Kitten" (1907), "The Pineapple Apron" (1908), and "How Bobbie Got to the Picnic" (1909).
Three other stories have children playing major roles, but the stories are aimed at adult readers. "Tomorrow Comes", (1934), a sophisticated story from a child's perspective, is about a broken marriage put together again. The interest lies in deciphering, from the child's thoughts, what is really going on. "Hill o'the Winds" is a love story in which a child plays a role. "Peter of the Lane" (1909) is a Victorian weepy about an adult's change of heart after a child's death.
Love and marriage are major themes in 10 of the 11 remaining stories. "Tween" readers may not be interested while older teenage girls may find them amusingly dated. As with any writer's body of work, Montgomery's fiction varies in subtlety, predictability and depth. Those looking for spine-tingling suspense should look elsewhere. The stories in After Many Years are not of uniform quality and perhaps are not Montgomery's best writing. Even so, Montgomery enthusiasts of all ages and nationalities hunger for more from her, and, as Mary Beth Calvert points out, these short stories are "literary hors d'oeuvres" for them. Montgomery's appeal is widespread and deep-rooted among girls and women.
Recently, a fortyish math and science specialist who has read all of the Anne books confessed to me that when she saw Anne of Green Gables, the musical, this summer, she wept at Matthew's death. In a creative writing class that I once taught, one of the participants alluded in her story to "Minnie May Barry", and all the women in the class immediately knew to whom she was referring.
Seven of the grown-ups' stories in this collection appealed to me. Although "The Use of her Legs"(1936) is melodramatic and involves a dubious diagnosis of psychological paralysis, it is redeemed by a vivid character, a religious fanatic who turns out to be homicidal. "The Old Homestead" (1907), with a plot reminiscent of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi", will strike a chord with senior citizens of today. "Our Neighbours at the Tansy Patch" (1918), which humorously depicts an eccentric family, is modernist in its realism and its open ending. "The Matchmaker" (1919) is a timeless story about well-intentioned meddling and manipulation. "Jim's House" (1926) is outstanding for its insight into the unrequited love of a woman for the man who asks for her help in furnishing a home for him and his bride-to-be.
Back in the 1920s and '30s when Canadian literati were first influenced by the modernist movement, several powerful male critics dismissed Montgomery's work as sentimental fiction for girls. Yet, as Mary Rubio points out in The Gift of Wings, Montgomery's writing, with its "passionate responses to life, humorous treatment of the vagaries of human nature, and affectionate view of humanity", has stood the test of time and is still selling all over the world while her critics' works have been forgotten.
My favourite story, "The Bloom of May", shows several key features of Montgomery's work. The story does not conform to the pyramidal structure so popular in action-adventure and other genre fiction. Instead, it is episodic in structure, with eight experiences that add up to a total impression. Montgomery's nature-grounded spirituality is also revealed in this story about a magical, sacred tree. Seven people who come in turn to sit under the ancient apple tree in a farmer's field feel calmed, uplifted, and in harmony and communion with the universe.
"[Montgomery's] creative spirit produced books that have raised the spirits of millions of readers all over the globe..." wrote Mary Rubio. "They showed women writers that they could write about ordinary women in small towns and have a fascinating subject." These readers will thank Collins and Woster for bringing to light the 21 lost long stories in After Many Years.
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