Monday, April 20, 2015

Double review: Further Chronicles of Avonlea and The Story Girl

The title: Further Chronicles of Avonlea
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: L.C. Page & Company, 1920 (My edition: Seal Books 1987)
Got it from: N.B. c.1993

While I was in the middle of reading one L.M. Montgomery book and listening to another on audio, Anne fandom was hit with a huge blow this past weekend with the death of Jonathan Crombie who played Gilbert in the classic Sullivan films.  Two weeks ago at Easter when I reviewed Cool Japan Guide I went down the rabbit hole and started researching the Japanese obsession with Anne, and somehow ended up finding this interview with Crombie. Even though Gilbert of the books will always be my favourite, Gilbert of the movies was everything he should be.  A generation of Anne fans will mourn him deeply.

Anne and Gilbert don't make make too many appearances in this follow-up to Chronicles of Avonlea, although Anne does narrate one of the stories.  What makes these two collections interesting is that they were written to be published as a whole from the beginning, rather than compiled together from various stories like many of the Montgomery collections that began appearing in the 1990s.  The fact that it's set in Avonlea is almost non-essential.  Except for a few mentions of peripheral Anne characters, these stories could be set anywhere in Montgomery's beloved turn-of-the-century P.E.I.  As always, her stories are full of warmth, humour and the follies of human nature, and I enjoyed them with a few serious caveats.

On the whole the first few stories felt stronger than the last handful and overall I thought Chronicles of Avonlea was stronger than its sequel.  Fans of the TV show Road to Avonlea will recognize the story "The Materializing of Cecil," about a spinster who makes up a beau from her past only to have a man with the same name show up in town.  "Her Father's Daughter" was a nice story about a girl who reunites with her estranged father on her wedding day.  "The Brother Who Failed" shows Montgomery's Victorian sentimentality with her It's a Wonderful Life plot: a brother who feels like a failure is proved to be everyone's hero.  "The Son of His Mother" showed Montgomery's near-obsession with sons (she had two herself and was unapologetic in her bias).  This story features a mother so obsessed with her son it borders on mental illness. 

Each story is worth discussing, but I want to focus on a couple of things that rubbed me the wrong way as a modern reader.  "The Education of Betty" has a man raising the daughter of a woman who refused him, and he ends up romantically with the daughter in the end.  Yuck.  I find May-December romances incredibly creepy, especially when it's the man who's older.  Even though the girl in this was 19, I just found the whole concept gross, especially as the "lover" was her father figure growing up. 

The other aspect of these stories I can't forgive is their casual racism, even though it was perfectly acceptable at the time.  As much as I love Montgomery, holy crap was she racist.  She basically looks down on anyone who isn't a white well-to-do Protestant, but it's even more pronounced here.  There's a throwaway line at the end of "The Materializing of Cecil" disparaging the Chinese, but you could write a thesis on last story, "Tannis of the Flats," and its depictions of First Nations people.  I'm not going to repeat the slurs here but suffice it to say the whole story is based on racist stereotypes and ethnic insults abound.  Modern readers will be horrified.

The title: The Story Girl
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: L.C. Page & Company, 1911
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks, read by Grace Conlin, 2006

Less racist (although still classist) was my audiobook listen of The Story Girl, which along with its sequel and the Chronicles of Avonlea formed the basis of Road to Avonlea.  This is the only one of Montgomery's books that I didn't remember a thing about from having read as a child, except for the scene where the children pay someone for a picture of God. Montgomery has said it was an autobiographical story.  It features a summer in the life of a group of clannish cousins, along with their mischievous hired boy Peter and a wet blanket of a friend named Sara Ray.  It's narrated by one of the boy cousins, but the true protagonist of the story is Sara Stanley, the narrator's cousin.  Although she's not as beautiful as their conceited cousin Felicity, Sara is more beloved for her imagination and her ability to tell marvelous stories.  Her tales form many stories-within-stories that often reflect events in the children's lives.  Grace Conlin reads beautifully and the oral storytelling in the book makes for a perfect audiobook experience.  I expect to follow up with the sequel The Golden Road in the near future.

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