Monday, May 11, 2015

Mark Twain really liked Anne of "Anne of Green Gables" -- and so did I

Most people consider "Anne of Green Gables" a children's book, specifically, a book for girls.

As a child, I didn't read it. I read a lot. Sci-fi classic. Classics for boys, such as "Treasure Island" and "The Three Musketeers." The Hardy Boys mysteries. Tom Swift adventures.

But "Anne of Green Gables" or "Little Women" or "Little House on the Prairie?"

Not this cowboy.

My loss, as it turns out. Artificial barriers delineating what you should or shouldn't read does nobody any good.

I was charmed by the staged reading of "Anne of Green Gables" put on by the Next Step Performance Company this weekend at the LCCC Playhouse in Cheyenne. Small theatre, big cast. Next Step puts on productions that raises money for scholarships for students majoring the fine arts. Cast and crew are all volunteers, which allows ticket sales and auction proceeds to go to scholarships.

"Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery is a serious story. An aging duo, brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, are getting too old to do all of the chores required by Prince Edward Island farmers in 1908. Matthew is in his 60s and Marilla in her 50s. Had automation come to the farm in 1908? Matthew has heart problems. His solution for cardiac arrhythmia is to get back to work. Marilla does all of the cooking and cleaning. Darns socks. Makes clothes. Bakes pies. On PEI, you have to make hay while the sun shines, which is does about the same length of time as it does in rural Wyoming.

They decide to adopt a 13-year-old male orphan to help out around the place. Orphans must have been a dime a dozen in 1908. Unfortunately, Matthew arrives in his buckboard at the Avonlea train station to find a scrawny 11-year-old girl waiting for him. The taciturn Matthew is kind of taken with the talkative Anne "Anne with an E" Shirley. The practical Marilla, not so much. "What good is a girl on a farm?" she asks. Anne must go. A neighbor says she will take Annie. The neighbor it bitchy Mrs.Blewitt, who has a zillion little kids and goes through hired help like there's no tomorrow. Marilla knows that Mrs. Blewitt probably will work Anne to death, which wouldn't have been much of a crime in an era of widespread child labor. She lets the lively Anne stay at Green Gables. Matthew is pleased. Anne gets into some minor-league scrapes. She stands up for herself with the town gossip, Rachel Lynde (played with aplomb by my one-time arts colleague, Rita Basom). Matthew spoils her with little gifts. Marilla gets on her case but you can see her attitude softening as time goes on.

Women readers know this story. I don't. No less a literary personage than Mark Twain thought that Anne was "the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice." The book has sold 50 million copies in 20 languages during the past 107 years. That's 500,000 copies annually, give or take. The author's home and the green gables farmhouse on PEI is a literary tourist stop, visited by scores of loyal readers from all over the globe. The town of Cavendish, the model for Avonlea, plays up its legacy. Nearby is a national park dedicated to Montgomery's works.

I didn't know any of this until I saw the staged reading and conducted a Google investigation of "Anne of Green Gables." Amazing story, really. We writers secretly yearn for our legacy to outlive us. I don't have much of a legacy. I visit those old homesteads and birthplaces of those who do. The best example I can think of is Nebraska's Willa Cather and her town of Red Cloud. The entire town is dedicated to Cather and her books and stories.A wonderful places to spend a warm spring day.

Living writers are learning how to enhance their local brand. Buffalo's Longmire Days celebrates the mystery novels and the TV series spawned by Craig Johnson's fiction. Carbon County celebrates  the fictional creations of native son C.J. Box. This is a trend that will only get bigger as the "local" craze grows. If you're a locavore, you should be devouring the creations of local writers, artists and performers.

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