Whiff of fresh air


Lucy Maud Montgomery

Lucy Maud Montgomery  

"Do people read those Anne books anymore?'' a friend asked. ``Aren't they outdated?'' wondered another.

But Lucy Maud Montgomery's 24 books (written between 1908-39) have been regularly reprinted. Best known are the chronicles of the fiery, red-haired heroine, launched with Anne of the Green Gables (successfully filmed and staged, translated into 17 languages). Like most children's stories that have stood the test of time, Montgomery's works are enjoyed by adults as well.

Her sharp strokes and vivid details reflect a Canadian culture bristling with life. Whether about Anne, Pat, or Emily (modelled on herself), Montgomery's stories are crowded with people of all kinds — old, young, crabby, cordial — and ``kindred spirits'' in unexpected places. Her descriptions of nature may seem too long for today's readers, but they photograph the landscape — and release our imagination.

Most striking is Montgomery's love of freedom. The author is on the side of warm-hearted, high-spirited children, who can think for themselves and see things beyond the commonplace. Once in a while she likes them to rebel and do mischief. Montgomery's language has the free flow of the wild streams she adores. Her sense of fun saves her characters from becoming sentimental.

``I never told my ambitions, efforts and failures to anyone. I listened unmoved to the sneer and ridicule of various relatives who thought my scribbling rank folly and waste of time. Down, deep down, I knew I would arrive some day,'' she said in her diary.

As a motherless child, Maud was raised by stern grandparents in the beautiful Prince Edward Island of Canada, the setting of her stories. Her stepmother's cruelty and father's neglect were early heartbreaks. There was no one to applaud the publication of her first poem at age 15. none to buy the photograph of her Sunday school class.

She managed a single year of language courses in college, but it was taking the Teacher's License, which gave her a career. An early journal entry says, ``I cannot remember when I was not writing or when I did not mean to be an author. To write has always been my central purpose toward which every effort, hope and ambition of my life has grouped itself.''

Soon, her poems and stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines. Runaway success came with the first Anne book in 1908. On her death (1942) she was to leave behind, not only novels but also 450 poems, 500 short stories, an autobiography, 5000 pages of journals, and 39 years of correspondence with two pen friends in Britain! She answered every one of her huge fan mail.

An American reviewer thought that Anne Shirley remained the same from beginning to end. On the other hand, Mark Twain wrote that Anne was ``the sweetest creation of child life ever yet written.'' Lucy Maud Montgomery's writings made Prince Edward Island a literary landmark for the world. Today her influence is felt in the education, art, economics and the government of her island, where the L.M. Montgomery Institute promotes research and study on the writer.

So full of sunlight are her romances that it is difficult to remember how muddled Maud's own love life had been. After getting engaged to her cousin she found out that she did not love him. She also fell in love with an uneducated farmer whom she knew would not make her a suitable husband. Later, after a nine-year engagement (when she looked after her widowed grandmother until her death), she married Ewan Macdonald, a parish priest. Faithfully did she discharge her duties to her family and husband's parish. Wrote her biographer, ``Neighbours grew used to seeing the petite Mrs. Macdonald, as they called her, striding down the street to take care of shopping or Sunday school, muttering dialogues for her books as she went.'' Writing had been an early refuge for the lonely girl. It helped the woman to overcome many more hurts — problems with publishers, the death of a child, her husband's bouts of depression, and her own despair during World War II.

Montgomery's faith went deep. ``If we range ourselves on the side of good, the result will be beneficial to ourselves in this life, in all succeeding lives. Conversely, if we yield to or do evil, the results will be disastrous to us.''

Her books show that imagination, friendship, honesty, and a bit of daring, can make life beautiful for every one of us.

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