Sunday, October 11, 2009

On Before Green Gables

It was an enjoyable and fascinating experience to finally read Before Green Gables, the Anne of Green Gables prequel written by Budge Wilson, published last year. Budge Wilson was an author I particularly loved when I was young-- the Lorinda Dauphinee stories, including A House Far From Home, The Best/Worst Christmas Present Ever, and Thirteen Never Changes. She certainly had a formidable task set before her, to write the Green Gables book. And I began reading prepared for disappointment (after all, I'd once read Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley), but found myself enjoying it after all. There is nothing disappointing about this book itself.

But. Of course. I think what is disappointing is the entire exercise, and its execution. I'm not sure why we needed a "prequel" anyway, and then to have it written by a children's author is rather incongruous with the original material. Because Before Green Gables is distinctly a children's book-- this is what Budge Wilson does, after all. In fact, it's basically a pared-down version of Anne of Green Gables itself, as Anne-- from the age of three or four-- begins to entrance all who meet her (including her alcoholic wife-beating foster father), conjure magic in unlikely places, and spin the world into something delightful. And of course part of this is her nature, but Wilson has her nurtured too-- her guardians display moments of genuine goodness, she meets a surfeit of generous, spirited school teachers along the way, she learns about poetry from her foster-sister who is uncannily Anne-like herself, she meets good friends, people look out for her, and not one heart here is not warmed at one time or another.

The thing is, however, that Anne of Green Gables was not a children's book, or was not distinctly so. And however much all of the above events also came to pass in the original novel, where they achieved their poignancy is from the awfulness of Anne's early life. The specifics are never made particularly clear, but such silence is telling-- there is a reason Anne's story began in Bright River. I believe Marilla Cuthbert alludes to this at some point, the unspeakableness of Anne's early history, what she might have witnessed and been subject to in the homes where she spent that part of her life. Anne is who she is, not because of kindness she met along the way, but because of sheer lack of it. Her Anne-ness is primarily a survival mechanism in a brutal world where she was completely, utterly and scarily alone.

Her life from Green Gables was indeed a kind of fairy tale, but how dark is a fairy tale at its root, after all?

Budge Wilson has written a wonderful children's book, but a children's book doesn't do Montgomery's own work justice-- or at least this one doesn't. Because there is only light here, and Anne becomes a caricature. Before Green Gables also suffers from being so unorganic, where it is obvious that the narrative was always a means to an end and not the end itself. But what's missing most of all is the subliminal, what's left unsaid, all those aspects of the narrative that fly over kids' heads leaving them sensing something there, and loving the story all the more.

Montgomery's work was full of that stuff, which is why we return to her again and again.