Reading and the Celebration of Spring

Spring is not only a good time for reading—although what season isn’t—it’s a time of year that features into many of my favourite books. Spring is a time of transition, but more than that, it’s a time the world explodes into new life. If you live, like me, anywhere north of the forty-ninth parallel, you know that we sometimes bypass spring altogether and go straight to summer. Technically speaking, spring begins with the vernal equinox, but sometimes it takes a while to get some traction, especially in a place like Edmonton.
Here are three passages from favourite books that note the interesting, changeable, and verdant nature of spring. Spring is the herald of new life, but sometimes, too, it’s the herald of new adventure. So take care the next time you leave your front door.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!” The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Spring had come once more to Green Gables the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Sam sat silent and said no more. He had a good deal to think about. For one thing, there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared. The grass was growing fast. But Sam had more on his mind than gardening. After a while he sighed, and got up and went out.
It was early April and the sky was now clearing after heavy rain. The sun was down, and a cool pale evening was quietly fading into night. He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully.
It was just at this time that Gandalf reappeared after his long absence. …

Discovering Anne, An Outsider’s Perspective


I’m spending time reading, writing, and thinking about Anne Shirley these days. Spending time is probably an overstatement. The middle of the winter term doesn’t allow much besides marking and preparing for classes. However, I was reminded recently that I have this interest in Anne and Lucy Maud Montgomery, and I sometimes wonder how I got here.
When I was twenty-one and thought I knew something about books and reading, I walked into my parent’s living room to find them engrossed in the television. A girl was on the screen announcing that her name was Anne Shirley—Anne with an E, no less.
Who the hell is Anne Shirley, I thought.
When I asked, my mother gave me a look. “We’re watching Anne of Green Gables.” I left the room.
Anne of Green Gableswas a title I had encountered variously over the years—both at home and at school. It was a girl’s book, as far as I could tell. My sister read it, and that was enough of a reason for me never to touch it.
By the time I was in my late twenties, had read a good deal more, and had begun to realize I knew much less than I thought, I encountered the book again, this time in a graduate seminar with my earliest mentor in children’s literature—Jon Stott of the University of Alberta.
I had taken a course from Jon in my third year as an English student, and his enthusiasm and love for kid’s books pointed out a new direction for my life. I had always loved books such as The Hobbit and The Narnia Chronicles, but thinking of children’s books as a field of study was yet unknown territory. I did an honours tutorial with Jon on Lloyd Alexander, and I took a course with him while finishing my MA. He introduced me again to Anne Shirley. There she was, red-haired and talkative, but since encountering Anne last, I had developed a soft spot for redheads because of my own, then a two-year-old.
I don’t remember liking the book all that much at the time, but something happened over the next few years: Anne, and Montgomery, began to get inside my life. I read more books in the series. I started tutoring a children’s literature course by distance, and Annewas on the reading list. Once they were in school, my kids fell in love with Road to Avonlea—watching it every day after school. It wasn’t Anne of Green Gables this time, but there was that little town again with all of its problems and charm. It was sucking me in.
Not until I began teaching Anne in the classroom did things begin to shift significantly. I found I loved the book. I watched the Kevin Sullivan film; I went on in the classroom at length about Anne’s language, her mistakes, her quirks, and how sometimes, just like Marilla, I wish she would hold her tongue.
My children’s literature classes are generally populated by female students, and every year the Annefans would come forward. I had grown to love the book and the character, but these were young women who grew up with Anne Shirley, and had an attachment to the book born out of that particular sense of discovery that goes with being a young reader. I knew I had to tread carefully.
Having also grown up enough to have an adult relationship with my sister, I talked to her about Anne. She was still a fan. She often reread the books, and she introduced me to another Montgomery character, Emily from Emily of New Moon. I read that series as well. Frankly, I was expecting more Anne, but, no—this was a different character altogether.
Around this time, while I was trying to sort out my academic life, I came across a call for panel proposals on Montgomery. I thought I would send something in. It was rejected, but it gave me a sense of what I was up against and what I was trying to do. Then I heard about the Lucy Maud conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and I went.
It happened to be the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. I flew to Prince Edward Island, and discovered something I wasn’t expecting. Charlottetown was lovely, and I was immediately struck by the place and its people. My first evening in town, I walked down Queen Street in a soft, warm rain. Rain in Edmonton tends to be cold, sharp, and drenching. The people I encountered were interesting and friendly—and I do mean friendly. I found a place to eat, and I had seafood. The next few days gave me more information about Anne and Lucy Maud than I could ever take in.
After that conference, I decided to enter the world of Montgomery scholarship. It was like walking unknowingly up to a hole in the ground. It can’t be that deep, I thought, and jumped in.
I haven’t hit bottom yet. Five conferences, four trips to PEI, and one senior level seminar on Montgomery later, I can say that I know more about Lucy Maud than I ever thought there was to know, and many academics I’ve met know much more.
In spite of all the time reading and writing about Anne, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the world of Anne and Lucy Maud. It came home to me in a forceful way at one of the LMM conferences in Charlottetown. I was with a small group at the banquet, lining up for food. I was getting more and more attached to this island, and I said, casually, “Maybe I’ll move out here and become an islander as well.”
My words were met by a short, shocked silence. “You can’t become an islander,” was the immediate chorus in reply.
I was a little taken aback. My hosts explained to me that you are only ever born an islander. You can live on PEI for your entire life, but if you weren’t born there, then you are never an islander. You “come from away.”
That left me feeling rather deflated, and the comment stuck with me for the next year. One day, again reading and thinking about Anne, I had a revelation: Anne comes from away. She was born in Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia, which meant that Anne, too, was an outsider and always would be. Anne, the girl who comes from away, was my refrain until the next time I visited PEI. I still feel like something of an outsider to the world of Anne and Lucy Maud, but I’ve also taken no little satisfaction in knowing I shared this much with the talkative redhead who has become so much a part of my life.

In Remembrance, L. M. Montgomery and War


My trip to Charlottetown, PEI, last June to attend L. M. Montgomery and War brought me a greater appreciation for Montgomery as a writer, but also for the events of the Great War. Whenever I attend such conferences, I walk a line between my scholarly and personal interests, which means I’m not always terribly objective.
At the conference, I presented on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it figures into both Montgomery’s journals and rilla of Ingleside, the one book exclusively about WWI. I’ve taught a course on Montgomery, and I keep coming back to her as a writer, but my personal interest in this topic comes from learning to manage PTSD in my own life, and knowing a number of young men who served in Afghanistan.
In honour of this Remembrance Day, 2014, I thought to let Montgomery speak to you about war. I’ve collected here some brief passages from Lucy Maud’s journals that show her processing the events of the war, while she continued to work as a writer, a mother, and a minister’s wife. I’m also including Walter’s final letter to rilla on the eve of his death. The letter is a poignant farewell, but it stands as a tribute to the young men who fought and died in WWI, and serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, both real and imagined.
The journal entries come from The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, volume 2, 1910–1921, edited by Elizabeth Waterston and Mary Rubio, and Walter’s letter is taken from a Project Gutenberg e-text of Rilla of Ingleside.
June 10, 1916
“This war is slowly killing me. I am bleeding to death as France is being bled in the shambles of Verdun.”
August 19, 1916
“I do my writing in the parlour now, as said parlour possesses the only door in the house which young Chester cannot open … Wednesday and Thursday I was miserable with an attack of bowel trouble. Naturally, visitors took that day for appearing. The Russians have captured Tarnapol heights and the British and French have renewed their offensive.”
May 29, 1918
“We went to Uxbridg today to see a military funeral. Colonel Sam Sharp … was buried. He came home from the front quite recently, insane from shellshock and jumped from a window in the royal Victoria at Montreal.”
Walter’s Final Letter, Rilla of Ingleside (chapter 23) 
”We’re going over the top tomorrow, Rilla-my-Rilla,” wrote Walter. “I wrote mother and Di yesterday, but somehow I feel as if I must write you tonight. I hadn’t intended to do any writing tonight—but I’ve got to. Do you remember old Mrs. Tom Crawford over-harbour, who was always saying that it was ‘laid on her’ to do such and such a thing? Well, that is just how I feel. It’s ‘laid on me’ to write you tonight—you, sister and chum of mine. There are some things I want to say before—well, before tomorrow.”

“You and Ingleside seem strangely near me tonight. It’s the first time I’ve felt this since I came. Always home has seemed so far away—so hopelessly far away from this hideous welter of filth and blood. But tonight it is quite close to me—it seems to me I can almost see you—hear you speak. And I can see the moonlight shining white and still on the old hills of home. It has seemed to me ever since I came here that it was impossible that there could be calm gentle nights and unshattered moonlight anywhere in the world. But tonight somehow, all the beautiful things I have always loved seem to have become possible again—and this is good, and makes me feel a deep, certain, exquisite happiness. It must be autumn at home now—the harbour is a-dream and the old Glen hills blue with haze, and Rainbow Valley a haunt of delight with wild asters blowing all over it—our old “farewell-summers.” I always liked that name better than ‘aster’—it was a poem in itself.”

“Rilla, you know I’ve always had premonitions. You remember the Pied Piper—but no, of course you wouldn’t—you were too young. One evening long ago when Nan and Di and Jem and the Merediths and I were together in Rainbow Valley I had a queer vision or presentiment—whatever you like to call it. Rilla, I saw the Piper coming down the Valley with a shadowy host behind him. The others thought I was only pretending—but I saw him for just one moment. And Rilla, last night I saw him again. I was doing sentry-go and I saw him marching across No-man’s-land from our trenches to the German trenches—the same tall shadowy form, piping weirdly—and behind him followed boys in khaki. Rilla, I tell you I saw him—it was no fancy—no illusion. I heard his music, and then—he was gone. But I had seen him—and I knew what it meant—I knew that I was among those who followed him.”

“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”
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A Visit to Charlottetown, PEI


One of the best things about the biennial Lucy Maud Montgomery conference is that it happens in Charlottetown. One of the best things about Charlottetown is going to the Lucy Maud conference.
Not entirely true. I went to see the musical Anne and gilbert the Thursday evening of my stay. The Guild, a theatre on the corner of Richmond St. in downtown Charlottetown—across the street from the Confederation Centre in one direction and the Anne of Green Gables Store in the other—is an intimate venue where the front row is essentially part of the stage. This year, Ellen Denny of London, Ontario, played Anne, and Patrick Cook of St. John’s, Newfoundland, played Gilbert, two very fine and energetic actors. This was one of the liveliest musicals I’ve ever seen, and I used to hate musicals.
I loved the show, but even better was having Ellen Denny and Patrick Cook show up at the Saturday evening banquet at the conference as part of a birthday surprise for one of the conference participants. Ellen Denny was sitting beside me, and I did my utmost to act as though I wasn’t thrilled at her choice of seats.
I correct myself. Many exciting things can happen in Charlottetown besides attending the Lucy Maud conference. I can’t oversell this place. It’s one of the oldest cities in the country, its streets are crowded with interesting shops, pubs, and coffee shops; its people are kind and helpful in a way I’ve rarely seen, and they really will go out of their way on your behalf. I was looking for a bank one afternoon, and this fellow, who happened to be eating lunch in his car, got out—leaving the door open with the keys in the ignition—to lead me around the corner and down the street to the door of the bank.
It’s not as though people aren’t friendly or helpful in Edmonton. They are. But in Charlottetown, the people seem to have fewer barriers when it comes to strangers. It’s all part of the island culture.
They have an expression on the island. If you aren’t an islander, then you “come from away.” If you come from away, then you will never be an islander. But neither are you a stranger. If you visit the island, you are a guest, and you will meet with the same kindness and respect granted to friends and family.
But back to the conference. We had four days of talking about Lucy Maud, Anne, Rilla, and many, many other characters from Montgomery’s body of work. And then there are the journals—five decades worth—which means we have more information about Lucy Maud’s personal life and writing habits than any other writer I can think of, save maybe Samuel Johnson.
The theme of this year’s conference was Montgomery and War. She only wrote one book about the Great War—Rilla of Ingleside. Nonetheless, the conference presentations and conversation ranged all over the Lucy Maud map: from food, to spirituality, to post traumatic stress disorder, to patriotism, to women and the Red Cross. We talked about Montgomery’s struggle with depression, her grief over the death of her beloved cousin Frede Campbell, and her decade-long series of court battles with L. C. Page, the original publisher of Anne of Green Gables in 1908.
I always learn something new at these conferences. I learned, for example, that Montgomery collected reviews of her books and pasted them into scrapbooks. A curious habit. But as Ben Lefebvre, co-organizer of the conference and editor of The L. M. Montgomery Reader, said to me in a hallway conversation, Montgomery was “the author of her own career.”
Montgomery’s short stories, her poetry, her many novels, as well as her scrapbooks, letters, and journals provide an endless number of discussion points, no matter the topic. I wondered if this conference would be more limited than those in the past because of the theme. But no. And more and more, scholars and professionals are bringing an interdisciplinary perspective to the conference. I, for one, had a child psychiatrist from Melbourne on my panel about trauma.
If you are an Anne fan, there’s much more to read and discover in Montgomery’s books—Emily Star, for one. If you aren’t an Anne fan, then try the journals. Life writing is entirely its own genre, and Montgomery provides interesting historical and cultural insights into life on Prince Edward Island and Ontario, not to mention Canada. Montgomery visited the UK during her honeymoon, but As far as I know, the farthest west of Ontario Montgomery travelled was Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, to visit her father, but she had friends and family all over Canada, the States, and the UK.
I fell into the world of Montgomery by accident. I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until I was in my thirties—and I saw the film first. I don’t know how long I’ll stay in this world, but just like Charlottetown, it’s a fascinating place to visit.

All of the Annes (of course with an E)


With the LMM conference in Charlottetown just over a week away, I’m spending much time these days thinking about and reading L.M. Montgomery, particularly rilla of Ingleside. Rilla is Montgomery’s book about WWI. It’s a poignant narrative about Anne’s family and the response of the community of Four Winds Harbour to the war.
If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil it for you, but I’m always struck by the character of Anne in this last of the Anne books, chronologically speaking, that Montgomery wrote in her lifetime. After Rilla, Montgomery went on to write Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne of Ingleside, but these books fit earlier into the series, and, if you’ve read them, you will know the different tone these books employ. The Anne of Rilla of Ingleside is both mother and wife—sometimes writer but always a prominent figure in the community—a woman who has raised a family and experienced grief over the deaths of two children. The Anne of this book is a long way from the chatterbox who first comes to Green Gables on a buggy with Matthew, imagining names for the places she passes—The White Way of Delight and The Lake of Shining Waters—and  imagining having a family for the first time in her life.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Anne from Anne of Green Gables, but it can be tricky sometimes reconciling the girl to the woman. Anne herself in the first book talks about the different Annes that she must negociate: “There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person.” But readers of the series have to negociate Annes as well. You have to go from loving a skinny, starry-eyed redhead at eleven to understanding a wife and mother in her forties. Fans of the Harry Potter series talk about growing up with Harry and friends—especially those kids, like mine, who began reading Harry at eleven or twelve—but it’s a much longer haul with Anne.
Here are two passages that help to illustrate all of the Annes from the Montgomery’s series:
Anne of Green Gables
She danced up to the little looking‑glass and peered into it.  Her pointed freckled face and solemn gray eyes peered back at her.
“You’re only Anne of Green Gables,” she said earnestly, “and I see you, just as you are looking now, whenever I try to imagine I’m the Lady Cordelia.  But it’s a million times nicer to be Anne of Green Gables than Anne of nowhere in particular, isn’t it?”
Rilla of Ingleside
“She was thinking of little Joyce’s grave in the old burying-ground over-harbour – little Joyce who would have been a woman now, had she lived – of the white cross in France and the splendid grey eyes of the little boy who had been taught his first lessons of duty and loyalty at her knee – of Jem in the terrible trenches – of Nan and Di and Rilla, waiting – waiting – waiting, while the golden years of youth passed by – and she wondered if she could bear any more.”

L.M. Montgomery and War, the Eleventh Biennial Conference

On June 25, I will be travelling to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for L. M. Montgomery and War, the Eleventh Biennial LMM Conference, at the University of PEI. This year’s conference commemorates one hundred years since the beginning of WWI.
This is my fourth trip to this conference, and it’s an exciting event for Lucy Maud fans and scholars from around the world. I will be staying in downtown Charlottetown, a short walk from the harbour, the Anne of Green Gables Store, and the Anne of Green Gables Chocolate Shop. The chocolate shop will definitely be one of my stops.
Enjoy a tourists welcome to the Anne of Green Gables National Park. Remember, Anne is an industry for the island.
Charlottetown is a beautiful city, and it would be a challenge to find friendlier or more engaging people anywhere in Canada. Charlottetown itself is an older city—as far as Canadian cities go. During my last two trips to the conference, I had the good fortune to stay at the Great George, which I was told hoasted the fathers of confederation at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864.
The Lucy Maud conference starts on Wednesday, June 25, and I will be presenting on Friday, June 27. My paper for the conference explores post-traumatic stress in Montgomery’s fiction, specifically rilla of Ingleside and Jane of Lantern Hill.
While Montgomery wrote only one book exclusively about World War I, the conference will feature papers and presentations that cover war in all of its implications in her fiction.
Watch for updates and photographs from Prince Edward Island as the conference gets closer. If you haven’t’ read Rilla of Ingleside, Montgomery’s novel about the war from the perspective of the home front, you should know that the book largely comes from Rilla Blythe’s point of view, Anne’s youngest daughter. Rilla has to grow up as the community responds to the war and the war effort. Here is an excerpt.
“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer sometimes—only sometimes,” she added under her breath. She had found it very hard to laugh during the three weeks she had just lived through—she, Anne Blythe, to whom laughter had always come so easily and freshly. And what hurt most was that Rilla’s laughter had grown so rare—Rilla whom she used to think laughed over-much. Was all the child’s girlhood to be so clouded? Yet how strong and clever and womanly she was growing! How patiently she knitted and sewed and manipulated those uncertain Junior Reds!
Rilla of Ingleside, Chapter XII