From its very first sentence, which is 148 words long and covers, in part, the evolution of a local stream, Anne of Green Gables is a charming novel, but in an excruciatingly bland way. It’s nice in the same way Niagara-on-the-Lake is nice; it’s a place you take your grandmother who collects Christmas ornaments.
The story, first published in 1908, begins with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, brother-sister shut-ins with nary a desire for social interaction. The Cuthberts, who are getting old, decide to adopt a boy to help them around the PEI farm on which they live. Instead of a boy, they’re sent an 11-year-old girl, Anne.
Initially planning to return her to the Nova Scotia orphanage from which she came, both Cuthberts are quickly won over by Anne, her stream-of-consciousness monologues, and her outsized appreciation for the prettiness of common things.
She also has an outsized talent for finding trouble, which is central to her character and the novel. She’s accused of stealing Marilla’s prized amethyst brooch, she gets her young friend Diana drunk when she mistakes currant wine for raspberry cordial, she accidentally uses anodyne liniment in a cake for the minister’s wife, she breaks her ankle after taking a dare to walk along the roof of a house, she tries to dye her red hair black and ends up with green, and she nearly drowns in a river while playing make-believe with friends.
By the novel’s mid-point, Anne’s getting into and then out of trouble grows as tiresome as her inane speeches. The novel also contains an enormous amount of exposition on flowers and trees. And then there’s Marilla’s open distaste for Arabs and Italians, which one assumes is typically excused from criticism as a reflection of Island sensibilities of the time.
Through the several year span of the story, Anne turns Green Gables and the town of Avonlea into her home, and Marilla and Matthew into her family. Her temper and capriciousness are tamed, and we see her become a better person while infecting the Cuthberts with just enough of her lust for life that they, too, become better people.
As overwhelmingly nice as it is, the book is not to be dismissed. Its popularity and staying power are impressive, and the model of a child with booming confidence and an acceptable level of irreverence is a good one for any young reader. Also, dare I say it, we could all likely learn something from Anne. She reminds us it’s important to give weight to prettiness and to appreciate our lives when they are good. “Dear old world,” she says near the end of the novel, with uncharacteristic brevity, “you are very lovely, and I’m glad to be alive in you.”