Planning a prequel or sequel to classic works by now-dead authors should bring drops of blood to the writer’s brow. Crafting a plot is fairly easy, but writing in the spirit of the original is virtually impossible. How much ought the new author’s voice inform the piece? Too much, and the work is no longer faithful to the original creation; too little, and it’s fan fiction. Furthermore, a strong character often becomes a caricature in a sequel, reduced to easily recognized traits and mannerisms, with little further character development.
Before Green Gables was written in 2008 to commemorate the centennial of a Canadian classic–L.M.Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, featuring the adventures of Anne Shirley, a red-haired orphan girl of unusual spirit and imagination. Before Green Gables chronicles Anne’s years in Nova Scotia before her departure for Prince Edward Island (and Green Gables). I couldn’t help but wonder at the chutzpah of a writer who takes on a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s books ever, but now that I’ve read it, I doff my toque to Budge Wilson. The basic plot outlines have of course been laid out by Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables, but Wilson has immersed herself in Anne-lore and the period, and the result is an adroitly fashioned, utterly convincing tale. Every sentence spoken by Anne could have been written by Montgomery–there isn’t a single false note in this work.
Before Green Gables begins with Walter and Bertha Shirley’s anticipation of their child’s arrival. Within a tenth of the book, they are dead and the three-month old Anne consigned to the dubious care of the Shirleys’ domestic help, Mrs. Thomas. The household consists of a drunkard father and three (to become seven) children. If Anne’s lot seems unutterably bleak, it soon gets worse–upon the death of Mr. Thomas, Anne is packed off to assist Mrs. Hammond, a mother of six (including two sets of twins), and soon to give birth to yet more twins. This MG book is a stronger argument for birth control than many carefully researched non-fictional works on the topic.
Before Green Gables feels careful-verging-on-unadventurous, but it is satisfyingly done; not one of Anne’s references to her tragical past in AoGG has been missed, from her experience with croup to Lily Jones of the nut-brown hair. If you know the series well, there’s much pleasure gained in playing spot the references. And if Wilson makes her Anne extraordinarily precocious–walking at eight months, noting before her third birthday that the name Maurice sounds like a “smooth-running river” , and before her sixth birthday, coaching Mr. Thomas on the secret to finding serenity–I can forgive her the indulgence.
The only real issue I had with Before Green Gables is its unremitting misery. There isn’t a single funny episode here, nothing to raise the barest chuckle. Anne does find little joys–a good teacher, the accidental gift of a dictionary–but these are valiant victories, pathetic as much in their smallness as in their disproportionate value to Anne. Yes, the context of Anne’s unhappiness in her early years is important to highlight her joy in finally belonging to Green Gables and to Marilla and Mathew. But Montgomery always found pleasure in the ridiculous, even when the scenario was desolate. Look at The Blue Castle, where the heroine, dying of heart disease, decides to cock a snook at convention and start speaking her (decidedly rude) mind to her overbearing family. I’m no Montgomery expert, but I felt that Wilson didn’t quite capture Montgomery’s philosophy–that in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak, when the big things seem hopelessly wrong, escape lies not just in imagination but also in humor. I like Anne of Nova Scotia, oh I do, but she doesn’t quite have the magic or laughter of Anne of Green Gables.
Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson
Puffin Canada, 2008
Genre: MG/YA fiction
If you like all things Anne, you may also be interested in my review of L.M.Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted, which, for reasons I do not understand, is one of my top posts on this blog.