If you’re as big of an Anne-fan as I am, then you can probably imagine the hesitation I felt going into this book; is it going to live up to Anne-standards, LMMontgomery-expectations? Well, for me, it did. I found it both Anne-like and LMM-worthy.
Before Anne came to Prince Edward Island to live at Green Gables, she lived in an orphanage in Hopetown, Nova Scotia. And before that, she lived with the Hammonds and the Thomas’. Before that, she was born to Walter and Bertha Shirley in their little yellow house in Bolingbroke, NS. We know all this from LMM’s Anne of Green Gables. But Budge Wilson imagines it all out for us; who are all these people who were in Anne’s life, and how does Anne become the girl we have all come to know and love?
I had a lot of fun getting to know Anne’s parents. They are as smart and kind as Anne always imagined/hoped they would be. But, she is only with them for 3 months before being whisked on to the Thomas’, where Mr. Thomas drinks too much and Mrs. Thomas has 4 boys in a row. Anne is expected to help take care of the children as well as help to cook and clean the house. There’s no time for adventures, but her daydreams keep her imagination alive through all the drudgery.
The Hammonds are not as awful as I thought they would be (based on what I know of them from the 1985 CBC movie). But there is still too much work and responsibility for a young girl. Three sets of twins in a row? No wonder Mrs. Hammond walked around in a daze.
So, what saves Anne from becoming a completely miserable child? Her intelligence, and, of course, her imagination. Whenever she gets a chance, she spends time talking to her imaginary friends, Katie Maurice and Violetta; they are a great comfort to her when she’s exploding with emotions. She also comes across some neighbours and teachers who are kind to her. The law in Nova Scotia that all children must go to school saves her from day in and day out housework. School is her favourite place to be. And, she is delighted when the Egg Man teaches her 5 new words every time she comes to collect eggs. Her love for words, the bigger the better, shines through starting at a very young age, before she even knows what they all mean. In fact, her love for everything shines. When the Thomas’ get a cat: “My heart within my chest felt squeezed with ecstasy“. When Mrs. Hammond’s third set of twins is born: “Two baby bundles… and, as she looked at the perfect little faces, knew that she already loved them.” After making her first real friend at the orphanage: “Anne looked out the window and felt tenderness for the pathetic little sticks of trees that had been planted beside the driveway.”
One of the only complaints I have about the book is that I want to know what happened to all the characters she had to leave behind. Many of them had hard lives, but Anne managed to find hope and love in small, dark places.
There are some reviewers on Goodreads who would argue that this book isn’t historically accurate or true to the spirit of Anne. It’s interesting to read all their points, but I couldn’t help but feel like some of them were just looking for reasons to criticize the book. I say go into it with an open mind about Anne, rather than a rigid expectation of her, and you will sink into Budge Wilson’s world of “Before Green Gables“, and discover Anne’s limitless longing and capacity for love.
Harbour View is also set in Nova Scotia, albeit about 100 years later than Before Green Gables. It is made up of interconnected stories about some of the residents and staff members of a senior’s home on Halifax Harbour.
This book is based on the idea that everyone has a story, and that even the most seemingly ordinary life can be extraordinary to read about. The staff interact with the clients everyday, but they don’t really know them. The clients have their favourite and least favourite staff members, but what are the stories behind their polite talk, their forced joviality, or their gruff practicalities?
Buddy is turning 109, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be when you’ve outlived all your children.
Buddy knows it is winter, and he enjoys the irony of the sun’s warmth through his window. The harbour might well be filled with warships moored and awaiting designation, ferries zig-zagging between and around them, bringing cars and their drivers from one shore to the other. But he knows this is no longer so; he knows a bridge spans the near-empty harbour, bearing cars from Dartmouth to Halifax. A few containers and tugs will make their way through the harbour, and maybe some sailboats, even at this time of year. Buddy knows it all, but he prefers to remember things otherwise, For this his blindness is a blessing.
Dahlia reminisces about her past as she puts up with the indignities of being old.
Can’t even see her own feet! Her rounded belly and purple-veined legs, encased as they are in elasticized trousers are now her enemies, conspirators in pain and clumsiness. There was a time when they glided her around on the ice until her nose was frostbitten and her toes numb with cold. Dahlia can practically taste the hardboiled eggs, two in each pocket, supplied by her mother on skating days. Up at first light, Dahlia was off with her skates, sailing over the frozen Dartmouth Lakes until dusk. There was nothing better than a golden egg yolk on an empty stomach, washed down with a mitt-full of snow.
Muriel reminds us that everyone is just looking for a bit of kindness.
She marvels at the lemons. There is an orderliness about them that brings with it the surprise of tears, that too-familiar burn beneath the eyelids she wishes she could control. But they are perfection, sunshine orbs grown in Spain and stacked here in the produce section on a rainy day in Halifax. Of course she must cry.
Violet takes in her surroundings as she tries to enjoy any small pleasures she has left in life.
At the next table, old ladies in drab cardigans and gaudy lipstick compare dull notes on children, grandchildren, tonight’s supper of boiled chicken and peas. Violet sighs and reaches for the pepper. Nothing here is beautiful, not even the food.
For a moment she thinks of tomorrow’s bath. She closes her eyes and imagines the warmth, the fragrance of bath oil, the tingling of her scalp as strong fingers massage shampoo into what remains of her hair. Violet’s life has been reduced to so few pleasures; her weekly bath has become a regular high point.
Myrna is grieving her house and the life she had made in it. In the end, what do our lives come down to? But she is a good, kind mother to her son, and maybe kindness and acceptance is all we can hope to pass on.
How Myrna misses her kitchen with the sunlight streaming through the lace curtains. the red-and-white linoleum tiled floor, her apron hanging from a nail by the door and everything in its place. There was always something bubbling on the stove, a cake to be pulled from the oven, flowers to admire in the garden while she stood at the sink, gazing out the window while washing up. She misses the satisfaction of having cleaned and tidied the house, readying for Frank’s return from the high school, where he taught, and in later years, the freedom of moving quietly about the place, stopping in the rooms of her choosing so she might enjoy fond memories.
Estella laments the bulldozing of Africville and what it meant for her family. She feels the blatant dislike of her from many of the residents, telling herself that it is not entirely their fault; they come from a different time. But still…
She knows they assume things about her, these old people who know no better than what their parents told them, nearly a hundred years ago… She lets them assume. There was a time when she hated them for it, but now she hides behind their fears and assumptions. Her job at the nursing home, awful though it can be, provides her with what she needs to help her daughter along. This she reminds herself during the times when she despairs of assisting on one more bath, of wiping one more elderly, white behind.
What will your story be someday?
The only complaint I have about this book is that I wish it had been longer. Lucky for me, Binnie Brennan has two other books out that I haven’t read yet!
What have you been reading?