a world of pure imagination

When I was a little girl, my grandmother gave me the fourth Anne of Green Gables book, Anne of Windy Poplars, as a gift. It’s the story of the years that Anne had a long-distance relationship with her one and only Gilbert while she worked in Summerside, PEI, teaching at a girls’ school. This does mean that all of the carefully constructed will-they-or-won’t-they from the first three books, which I read after Windy Poplars, was forever lost on me. What matters is that Grammy’s gift had two lasting effects on me: First, I will do everything I can to avoid reading books in a series out of order. Second, I joined the Cult of Anne. I still reread my Anne books every few years, still quote from their obscure passages without even caring if anyone knows what I’m talking about, and still think about the giddiness that would have come over the little girl I used to be if she’d only known that someday she would end up living in Canada. Now, living in Ottawa doesn’t equal Avonlea or really anything close to it. And as an adult and a person who viscerally detests tourist traps, I never even suggested to Myron that we go. Someday, I thought, maybe someday when I can go by myself, just to see. But I wasn’t about to say no when the opportunity presented itself.

The day we drove from the B&B to the north shore of the island took me by surprise. That morning, my friend Tammy had the map open at the breakfast table to plan the route. I wasn’t mentally prepared to go—I’d been expecting to stay close to home that day. But I threw together a small bag of items and we headed out across the island. It was another cold, gray day and the only appealing visuals came from the beautiful contrasts of the red farm fields (most were prepared for potatoes, with deep grooves in the earth) and brilliant green grass and the many beautifully painted farmhouses. After all these years of living in a suburbia where the houses are beige, off-white, and brown with the occasional red brick, it was elevating to see aqua blue and butter yellow houses that looked completely at home in their world instead of sore-thumby and loud.

It doesn’t take very long to travel most of anywhere on the island. I say this as a person who used to drive four hours to get to a Wal-Mart, so a ninety-minute trip to Cavendish didn’t bother me in the least. We stopped on the way in for a quick lunch—I ordered an appetizer order of mussels and a veggie wrap, but didn’t end up touching the wrap because my bowl of mussels was so enormous. Just a few more minutes down the road, we stopped here to look out at the water in North Rustico. I may have wished for better weather, but I could not have asked for cleaner, crisper seaside air or better music than the wind and water in concert.

My aversion to touristy attractions wars with me at places like the Green Gables house and the stuff that’s sprung up around it. There’s a visitor center that shows some sort of video (um, no) and outbuildings like a barn, woodshed, and granary that have slice-of-historical-life facts posted on plaques. These things have no appeal to me—all I cared to see was the house, a place where I expected to suspend my disbelief and forcibly place myself in the books I know so well. This house is the Macneill house, which Montgomery said was her inspiration for the Cuthbert home, and the items inside were collected for the purpose of creating the walk-through experience. The people responsible for it know the books exceedingly well.

I stood below the deep slope of the lawn to view the house and imagine approaching it as a small girl with countless hopes. But in fact Matthew’s cart would probably have approached the house from behind.

Matthew’s wash stand Puffed sleeves.My photos of the inside aren’t the greatest. This is partly due to the (lack of) light inside and the ubiquitous velvet ropes. But it was fun to be there, in a place much smaller and more personal than you might expect having seen the movies from the eighties. We moved quietly through the rooms, and my friend recited bits of the books as she was inspired by each room. Touring the little house at the same time were an older woman and her brother. There is nothing like meeting another Anne-girl, especially not in a place like that. She observed that the (period-appropriate but exceedingly loud) paisley hallway wallpapers were not what she expected out of a salt-of-the-earth type like Marilla Cuthbert, but then mused, “Of course Rachel Lynde moved in at one point,” and sniffed loudly, indicating exactly what she thought of both Mrs. Lynde and the decor.

Later on we stopped at the gift shop on the way out to pick up postcards. You wouldn’t think that you could work the merchandising as hard as they do, but, well, Anne was all about the imagination, and imagination is much at play here. Books and videos and maple syrup, of course, but my two favorite souvenirs are down below. I managed to resist buying both of them, but I might have been compelled to plunk my money down for some comp’ny jam. 

So here I am, trying to put together thoughts about visiting something like this, something manufactured to replicate a fictional experience. Cavendish is not Avonlea, which doesn’t truly exist. To me, the visit was more about being on the north shore, around the red dirt and the water, breathing the fresh air and walking in the author’s shoes more than Anne’s herself. Maybe this is part of being older, and maybe it’s just that Green Gables is not the kind of place that needs to be reproduced the way someplace like Hogwart’s can be—it doesn’t need an unlimited budget or complete immersion. An amethyst brooch on a nightstand, a geranium in the window… these are magic enough. And Green Gables is in the heart of all Anne-girls, anyway; what’s lovely is to see the echoes of the hearts of so many other Anne-girls made manifest in a plain little farmhouse on a hill.