Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Where Anything is Possible: A Trip to Green Gables

L.M. Montgomery Museum (Photo by author)

Thirty years ago, my wife and I drove to Prince Edward Island with our two year old son. We took the Wood Island Ferry, stayed in a lovely B&B just outside of Charlottetown and saw very little of the tourist traps that are everywhere nowadays. I recall driving to Cavendish Beach and parking very close to the sand, no charge, and a short walk over the dunes to the ocean. On the way back to the car I lost my pen knife in the sand. Every time I have heard of someone visiting PEI since then I’ve suggested that they check out Cavendish to find my knife. Last week my wife and I drove to PEI again. No ferry this time, we crossed at the Confederation Bridge, a marvellous 10 minute drive across the Northumberland Strait. We stayed in a cottage on the Northumberland Strait near Bedeque. Over a couple of days, we saw every imaginable place that Lucy Maud Montgomery lived, worked, taught or remembered in her book[s] about little Anne Shirley. It was a real Green Gables vacation.

Red Dirt Road, Lower Bedeque (Photo by author)
It started at the end of the property where we stayed. The red dirt road of the Bedeque dairy farm created a dreamlike environment for us, especially when combined with the sound of the waves as the tide rolled in and out, and the fresh cooling breezes. It was the same environment that the eleven year old orphan found when she arrived at the farm of Matthew & Marilla Cuthbert in 1876. Further on along that red dirt road, it becomes a paved road and then joins the highway and there sits a little one room school house. Lucy Maud Montgomery taught there for a few months in 1898. It’s not easy separating the fictional world of Anne from the world of her creator Lucy Maud. The buildings described in the book come directly from these places which PEI has carefully restored. Standing in the empty classroom you can envision Anne sitting in the desk, lifting the slate over her head to crack it down on Gilbert’s noggin. 

From Lower Bedeque it’s not far to the Kensington Train Station where Matthew went to pick up the little boy he and his sister had ordered from the orphanage in Nova Scotia. The station is home to a bunch of chichi shops these days, and a liquor store, but it’s not hard to imagine Matthew’s surprise on being greeted instead by a girl on that fateful (though fictional) night. The house Montgomery used as a model for Green Gables was the home of her Aunt Annie and Uncle John Campbell. Their family settled here in 1776 and still live in part of the house, behind the museum. Out the window are the rolling hills, the forest, and Anne’s famous Lake of Shining Waters. The museum is beautifully kept, and filled with mementos of the Lucy Maud Montgomery age. The enchanted bookcase is in the corner just as it appears in the story. I asked someone why there were no books in the bookcase, and they couldn’t tell me. I bought a copy of Anne of Green Gables, and began reading it immediately. The bookcase in the story had no books. It housed Anne’s imaginary friend and a collection of china and crystal, just like the one in the museum.  

Avonlea Village Classroom (Photo by author)
I was captivated by the story Montgomery told in this, her first book. Her writing is strong, and the story is eternal. Not unlike Mark Twain’s tales of young boys in Mississippi, this story of a young girl in Canada has a charm and depth that can be missed if you see the stories the way they’re told in movies and TV. While the version of Anne, played by Megan Follows, stayed fairly close to the intent of the book, the musical which has been playing for 50 years waters the story down and compresses, even loses some of the best bits in the book. Much like Johnny Whitaker’s Tom Sawyer, the Anne Shirley presented in the stage musical is only a shadow of the fully developed character we see in the book. Montgomery’s character is a living, breathing girl, not quite the loud and abrasive post-adolescent on stage. The nature of a musical, wherein we stop every few minutes for another song, detracts from the reality that Lucy Maud Montgomery was trying to portray. The Anne of her book does make the reader laugh at her outbursts, but one feels the years of hurt behind her outer shell too.

My wife commented that she couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying reading Anne of Green Gables chuckling aloud, or going quiet in scenes like the one where Matthew passes. Coming after just finishing Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken where most of my responses were of shock, or even disgust at the treatment of the captives, a life-affirming book like Anne was almost a necessity. Driving further through PEI we came to the house where Lucy Maud was born. We arrived at the same time as a bus filled with Japanese tourists. They clamoured for pictures, and, as the building is tiny we decided to snap a shot of the outside and drive on. What is it about Anne’s story that speaks so deeply to the Japanese?

We drove to Avonlea, the most commercial of the day’s visits. It’s a small version of Disneyland, made just for fans of the book[s]. Dirt streets and old refurbished building present an image of 19th century PEI. Fortunately entry is free after 5pm, because the shows are done, and the buildings closed…except for the gift shop, of course. You can buy Anne Shirley dolls, any size; Anne Shirley clothes for the dolls or for your own children. Make your daughter a 19th century orphan! Straw hats with red pigtails attached are also available, along with a variety of editions of the book and videos. In fact you name it, they’ve probably got an Anne version.

Green Gable Alpaca Farm (Photo by author)
The following day we drove a few miles up the North Cape Coastal Drive on PEI’s western side to Green Gable Alpaca Farm. Even miles away from Charlottetown Green Gable is used as a catch phrase. Owner Julie Ogilvie spent an hour with us telling us her story and how she came to raise alpacas here 25 minutes from Summerside. We arrived just 6 minutes after the birth of her latest little fuzzy critter. It was fascinating to watch this gawky youngster stand up, fall down, search for a nipple and finally succeed. But why Green Gable? Surely Lucy Maud didn’t live here. She’s like George Washington, sleeping all over the eastern seaboard. It’s good advertising. Visit this farm, it’s marvellous, and buy yourself some alpaca socks…the most comfortable thing you’ll ever put on your feet!

Somewhere between Lucy Maud’s school and the Charlottetown Theatre, we stopped at an antique shop. There in the display case I spied it. Amidst all the well-thumbed paperback books, and beat-up record sleeves, behind the china cups and meerschaum pipes it sat. It had a $5 price tag, and a note that said “found on Cavendish Beach.” I reclaimed my knife, a mere thirty years later. “Oh, sure,” you’ll scoff, “It’s not the same one!” It doesn’t have to be. In this magical place where there’s a ceilidh every night, somewhere, and the roads are made of red dirt, and an eleven year old orphan girl can command such interest for 150 years…anything is possible.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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