Anne of Green Gables gets a 21st-century treatment for television, adding to the character's enduring legacy. Nathalie Atkinson reflects on her own childhood obsession with the red-headed heroine and explores why she remains a global sensation.
When Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote what she described to a friend as "a juvenilish story, ostensibly for girls," she couldn't have known that her Anne would become a Canadian icon, let alone one who is, with the possible exception of Céline Dion, the most enduring and recognizable cultural export we have.
Yet hers is a cultural importance that we often take for granted. At the one extreme, there are the scholarly confabs that routinely gather (like around Anne's recent 100th) to celebrate and analyze what often feels theoretical, at a remove. At the other, there's the intended audience of children who continue to read the bestselling books. And in the middle, there is a juggernaut of licensing and the marketing of souvenir vials of raspberry cordial and White Way of Delight-scented candles.
No rescue mission is required to free Anne from memes and pop culture cliché (they're a sign she's arrived!), but she does seem a classic relegated to the category of retro comfort food. Charming but hardly relevant.
Yet returning to the books again as an adult, there's something new and resonant to be found each time. The book series that follows an 11-year-old orphan girl after she's mistakenly sent to elderly siblings up through adulthood, marriage and motherhood is formative, even if you don't realize it until much, much later. I hadn't noticed just how much Anne had burrowed her way into my life until I revisited her again recently.
Growing up in francophone communities and attending French Catholic school, Anne was among the few English books I read as a child (yes, I missed Seuss and Judy Blume entirely). Like most Canadians, I don't go looking for life lessons in a book most of us read back in elementary school—I go many years without thinking about the books, but she does resurface every so often offering entertainment, empathy and different forms of encouragement in equal measure.
Being the patron saint of misfits and outsiders is how Anne initially registers in middle school, with the literal coming-of-age storyline of her mishaps and rambunctiousness that is easy for children to relate to—the insecurity, teasing and established cliques, the appealing rebellion against authority.
Anne of Green Gables, the first book that introduces the character in the series, resonated in my happy but peripatetic upbringing as my family moved to a new province and small community every few years, and I was perennially the new kid at school. An anglophone surname (Thanks, Dad!) also meant that my given name was often incorrectly anglicized as well, and the (to my mind) crucial H left out. Every misspelling felt like a slight, and I could relate to her whimsical yet vehement insistence: "But if you call me Anne, please call me Anne spelled with an 'e' because it's the difference between dreadful and distinguished."
Canadian actress Rachel McAdams narrates the new audiobook, and she, too, says it remains one of her most beloved childhood novels. "I wanted to be Anne as a little girl," McAdams explained in the press preview. "She's a really strong female character but not in a typical way." It's that same spirit that moved a 10-year-old Christina Hendricks (forever Joan Holloway of Mad Men fame) who in interviews often mentions her childhood obsession with Anne as the reason she still wears her naturally blond hair in its now-trademark red.
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