CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 5. . . .October 24, 2008
Back in 2006, Penguin approached Budge Wilson requesting her to write a prequel to Anne of Green Gables which would be published on the 100th anniversary of L.M. Montgomery's original novel. Wilson is an award-winning author of children and young adult books who has published more than 30 books, with foreign editions appearing around the world. Her latest book, Friendships, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award.
When she was asked to write the prequel, Wilson says, "I was faced with an enormous challenge. But it was this challenge that made me want to write the novel." The question was, given Anne Shirley's first 11 years of hardship and emotional deprivation, how had she become the vibrant, talkative, articulate, optimistic child she was when she got off the train to meet Matthew? This was the challenge that Wilson claims drew her into the project. She says that she agonized for two months over the decision to write the prequel and spent time wondering "whether L. M. Montgomery would want me to do this, or anybody else to do it."
Before receiving approval from the family, Wilson submitted a 38 page outline of the novel which was read and approved by the Montgomery family. Kate McDonald Butler, a granddaughter of Lucy Maud and spokesperson for the heirs, described Before Green Gables as "beautiful" and admitted to crying after reading the first few pages. If (as many Anne fans believe) Budge Wilson's character has succeeded in remaining true to Montgomery's astonishing original, then she has done it in her own voice. She has not attempted use Montgomery's voice to tell her part of the story.
Wilson has taken every clue that Anne drops about her first 11 years and fashioned them into a novel which begins by bringing Anne's parents, Bertha and Walter, to life in their "teeny-weeny little yellow house" in Bolingbroke. When both parents die within days, Anne is left an orphan at three months, and her tribulations begin.
Adopted by the Thomases, she becomes part of a family with too many babies and an alcoholic father. Mrs. Thomas' daughter, Eliza, loves and mothers Anne for a time, but soon she marries and moves away, leaving five-year old Anne to do the chores and mind the babies. Despite the unrelieved drudgery of life with the Thomas family, there are bright spots for Anne. She goes to school (when the weather is good and Mrs. Thomas can spare her) meets the "Egg Man," a sort of literary hermit who discovers and encourages Anne's love or words, and she meets her first imaginary friend, Katie Maurice, who "lives" in a glass bookcase door. When Mr. Thomas is killed by a train, Anne, at the tender age of nine, finds herself unwanted once again.
She is taken in by the Hammonds who desperately need her skills at child-minding as they have six children including two sets of twins. Wilson has another set of twins arrive the first year Anne is with the family, an event she has cleverly set up to foreshadow Anne's remark to Marilla in the third chapter of Anne of Greem Gables: "I like babies in moderation, but twins three times in succession is too much." Despite being a slave to a houseful of babies and an exhausted mother, Anne finds a real friend in Miss Haggerty, a wise midwife, in a teacher who recognizes her intellectual ability and makes another imaginary friend, Violetta, who lives in the echoing hills.
Once again, Anne's life is disrupted by death, and she is finally relegated to the dreaded home for orphans. In the final chapters of Before Green Gables, Wilson weaves the orphanage stories from the original book into whole cloth (even including Anne's wearing of the hated yellowish-gray wincey fabric to meet her Prince Edward Island family). It is a seamless and entirely believable transition from the "before" to the "after" of Anne of Green Gables.
There are only a couple of disappointments in Budge's prequel. One lies with the difficulty of portraying Anne as a very young child when her articulateness seems a little forced. There is also not much to chuckle about in Before Green Gables. Perhaps the dreary existence that Anne leads for the first decade of her life is responsible for this lack of humour. Nonetheless, the story is certain to engage a wide range of readers from ten on up.
In her acknowledgements, the author wishes it was possible to thank Lucy Maud Montgomery for writing the Anne books in the first place "... and for making Anne such a feisty and fascinating and articulate child that I was tempted to try to solve the puzzle of how-coming out of a grim and deprived early life-she managed to become who she was when she first stepped off the train."
Lovers of Anne and admirers of L.M. Montgomery should be glad that they can thank Budge Wilson for such a remarkable contribution to the history and character of one of their favourite literary heroines.
A retired teacher-librarian, Val Nielsen lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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