My Lockdown Books: Fifty Six

Yes, I know that I’ve already written about one of LM Montgomery’s books but it’s my birthday so I’m indulging myself. No-one is surprised that this appears on my list of all-time favourite books. It was one in the stack of nine that formed my birthday cake a couple of years ago after all!

Birthday Book Stack

I first read Anne of the Island when I was about eight, which was ridiculously young, but it means that whenever I re-read it (and I do), there’s something new to discover. LM Montgomery was a brilliant writer and is much under-rated. There’s a general impression that her books, especially the series about Anne, are all sweetness and light but, if you dig slightly beneath the surface, you’ll see that there are some very dark elements in them.

In spite of the title, this is the only one of all the Anne books not really set on Prince Edward Island but it has long been my favourite of LM Montgomery’s books. I think it’s the best of the series and the one where Anne’s character is most fully explored. There’s a strong sense of community – off, but particularly on, the island – which Anne finally appreciates fully by the end of the novel, thus the title.

This third story about Anne, the world’s most famous red-haired orphan, sees her leave Prince Edward Island to go to college. She enjoys life in Kingsport, studying and making new friends including, she thinks, the man of her dreams. But her heart always remains on the Island – and so, it turns out, do her dreams. A book about discovering where you belong, this is LM Montgomery at her very best.

What On Earth Books

What On Earth Books are new to me but Laura Smythe who works as part of the publicity team is not and she sent me two of the company’s new books.  And I am delighted because they are wonderful in their own right but they are also about two things in which I am passionately interested: language and islands.  (I know, it’s an unusual group.)

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Literally, written by Patrick Skipworth and illustrated by Nicholas Stevenson, does what it says in the subtitle.  Patrick has chosen a selection of English words with different roots.  He explains, with the artistic help of Nicholas, where each word comes from, how to pronounce it and how its meaning has changed.

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I’ve chosen this one as my example as it demonstrates one of the reasons English has so many synonyms, something I was very interested in at Glasgow University where I studied English Language.  The history of language and its development is a fascinating thing and this book is an excellent starting point.

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Amazing Islands is by Sabrina Weiss and Kerry Hyndman and it is due out next month (June 2020). They have chosen some isands and some island groups for a variety of different reasons, be it geographical, geological or literary.

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I collect islands in a loose sort of way and am fascinated by the literal insular nayure of them, how it affects the people who live there and the particular phenomena it gives rise to.  Svalbard and Prince Edward Island are two isands I would love to visit and for the reasons in these descriptions.  I’ve been as far north as the top of mainland Norway but I’d really like to go norther still!  And for most of my life I’ve been dreaming about meeting Anne on her home ground.

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Although the publisher has aimed these books at quite young children, I’d say that anyone of whatever age will find something interesting in them.  And it might well lead on to further journeys of exploration, virtual or actual.

 

A sense of community and place

Some time ago I wrote an article for Folly, a journal written and read by children’s literature enthusiasts.  It was one of a series of Desert Island Books and in it I outlined the books I couldn’t live without.  As I wrote, I realised that they all had one thing in common: a strong sense of community and/or place.  I also realised that, for me, that was a huge part of their appeal.

One of those books was Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery.  Paradoxically, it’s the only title in the series that’s not set wholly in Prince Edward Island.  In it, Anne goes to study at Redmond College in Nova Scotia (at least, I think Kingsport is in Nova Scotia but I’ve never been totally sure) and much of the action takes place there. 

I’ve said before that it’s my favourite LMM book.  Why?  Because I want to be part of Anne’s group of friends and live in Patty’s Place with them.  Stella, Priscilla and Philippa are bright, funny, caring girls and are an excellent foil to Anne’s daydreaming nature.  The book effortlessly captures their joys and disappointments, their successes and disasters.  And it makes Patty’s Place real.  The camaraderie between the four girls and Aunt Jamesina creates a strong sense of community.

But the place that we are given a strong sense of isn’t Kingsport or Redmond College; it’s the Island.  The book starts and finishes there and we see glimpses of it in between.  As she sails away for her first term, Anne says ‘one’s native shore is the land one loves the best, and that’s good old PEI for me’ but she only fully realises how much she loves it after four years spent largely away from it.  It’s during these years that she grows up and becomes more mature, finally completely understanding what is really valuable.

It’s clearly significant that Anne refuses Roy Gardner but I think it’s also important that she only accepts Gilbert Blythe’s proposal once they are back home in Avonlea.  When he proposes in Kingsport, Anne is confused about many things (and I can’t tell you how annoyed I was with her when I first read the book!) but one of them is where she belongs.  By the time she finishes college, she has visited Bolingbroke, the place of her birth, and realises that she feels no tie to it but that her heart really belongs to PEI. 

It is a cliche that one has to leave something to discover what is truly precious but that doesn’t make it any less true!  And Anne of the Island exemplifies it beautifully.  It takes a bit longer and another cliche in the form of a deathbed revelation for her to see with whom her future lies but the two are inextricably linked.  Only with Gilbert in Prince Edward Island can Anne be completely happy.  And the tone, as well as the content, of the last chapter demonstrates that.

Maybe you’re wondering which other books I can’t live without (or at least couldn’t when I wrote my article).  Well, I think I’ll have to leave you to wonder!  Perhaps, over time, I’ll tell you about some more of them…

IFLA

Yesterday I met Anne Shirley.  Well, not really, of course, but someone from Library and Archives Canada dressed up as her.  This year, of course, is the centenary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables and in honour of that LAC has an exhibition in Ottawa.  I`m a huge fan of the Anne series and I had a very interesting conversation with the heroine!

I`m in Canada (although not for much longer) attending the World Library and Information Congress, the annual conference of IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations).  I`m thrilled to be here, both at the conference and in Quebec City.  Obviously Prince Edward Island would have been my first choice of destination but Quebec is a beautiful and historic city – more French than Paris, however, and I hide my Higher French very well!

It`s been a great opportunity to attend the conference courtesy of CILIP (I know, too many acronyms; this one is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals).  I`ve only been at one of IFLA`s conferences before this one and it was in Glasgow.  Don`t get me wrong; it was just as good a conference (in fact, it might have been better) but there`s an extra something being in a different country.  I`ve been to some excellent sessions but for me the best bit has been meeting librarians from all over the world: a lecturer from Nigeria, school librarians from Norway, a health services librarian from New South Wales and a university librarian from PEI amongst many others.

It`s almost time to go home now and I will be glad of a rest but I am so glad to have been here.  I`ve learnt lots from my colleagues worldwide and am looking forward to putting some of it into practice in Scotland.

Before Green Gables

Recently I met a friend for coffee and almost before I sat down we had embarked on a discussion about LM Montgomery’s Anne books.  We both remember them fondly from childhood and I certainly have re-read them periodically as an adult.  I enjoy them all but my favourite is Anne of the Island – for lots of reasons I might go into at a later date! 

What my friend and I didn’t discuss was the new prequel, written to mark the centenary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables.  I read Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson a few weeks ago and have very mixed feelings about it. 

As a story in its own right, it’s quite enjoyable and I think the author has made good use of all the clues that LM Montgomery’s books give about Anne’s early life.  But – and this is a major issue for me – the tone of the novel is all wrong.  I understand that Budge Wilson is not LM Montgomery and so has a different style of writing.  But the novel is too modern.  It doesn’t feel like it’s set in the late nineteenth century and, worst of all for me, Bertha and Walter Shirley weren’t characters I cared about.  I know: the book’s about Anne and how she develops into the girl who meets Matthew Cuthbert at Bright River.  To a great extent, though, Budge Wilson was stuck with the Anne of LM Montgomery’s making.  With Bertha and Walter, she had the opportunity of creating characters almost from scratch.  And they’re important characters, even though they have such a small part, because they are important to the Anne we meet on Prince Edward Island.

Before Green Gables isn’t a bad book; it’s disappointing.  For me.  I’d really like to know what other people think.