There are books that you can read once and be done with – glad to see their covers winking at you from your Goodreads “read” shelf, but with no desire to revisit them. There are books that you’ll come back to – once or twice, perhaps, or again and again – because they still have something to give you. And then there are books that are so intrinsically a part of you, books that you have lived in, that you will return to their pages for the rest of your life and even when you’re not in the midst of a re-read, you are carrying their subtle influence with you. Often, that’s a childhood book – one that was a formative influence on you when you were growing up.
Emily of New Moon is that book for me.
As I mentioned on Wednesday, my first encounter with one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines was with the delightful, effervescent Anne Shirley. I would curl up in my grandmother’s armchair, open her blue and white hardcover edition, and dive into the world of Avonlea, not to return for hours. I’d thrill to Anne’s first sight of the Lake of Shining Waters – dash with pounding heart and pounding feet through the Haunted Wood – rage at Gilbert Blythe (“Carrots! Carrots!”) – mourn the temporary loss of Diana’s friendship after the disastrous episode of the currant wine. The day I discovered that there were seven more books set in Anne’s world (plus the Chronicles of Avonlea short stories, but they didn’t feature Anne so they were second-tier choices) was one of the happiest days of my life. Anne has been a good friend to me since I was very young – but eventually, knowing her story inside and out, I wanted something new and a little different.
I read Emily of New Moon, and its two sequels, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest, anywhere and everywhere. I still have – somewhere – my original paperback copies, tattered from dozens of reads. Although I know that I must have read – did read – Emily in my own room, on my parents’ couch, at my grandmother’s kitchen table, and on the school bus, I recall reading Emily most intensely and contentedly while perched on a bolder on the bank of the Sacandaga Lake, where my parents have a camp. Emily was best read there, with a fall breeze coming off the lake, ruffling the pages until dying twilight puts a stop to reading time.
Emily Is Not Anne
While Anne and Emily have some similarities, Emily is a very different heroine. (For a thorough Anne-to-Emily comparison, check out this post by Naomi, to whom I’m very grateful for hosting the #ReadingEmily readalong.) One of the very few things that bothers me about the Anne books is how charmed Anne seems to be – once she arrives in Avonlea, that is – at getting people to fall in love with her. From Gilbert Blythe to half a town full of jealous ill-wishers who fall under Anne’s spell within the first half of Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne never seems to have much difficulty in winning people over and turning enemies into friends. Even Josie Pye, as obnoxious as she may be, winds up a part of Anne’s “set” – albeit, on the periphery. Even as a child, I think that Anne’s ease in winning friends and admirers struck me as unrealistic and rubbed me the wrong way, rather.
Emily, although her name is Starr, does not live under the same lucky constellation that Anne enjoys. Growing up poor but happy, raised by the loving hand of her father for the first ten years of her life, Emily thrives on very little human interaction. She has Father – and the cats Mike and Saucy Sal – and her imaginary friends the Wind Woman and Emily-in-the-Glass – and she’s perfectly content with that lot. (The housekeeper, Ellen, is not a sympathetic soul. If this was an Anne book, Ellen would start out gruff but would be doling out milk and tea cakes by Chapter 4. That’s only a slight exaggeration.) When Douglas Starr dies of consumption, Emily has her first encounter with the cruel outside world, in the personages of the Murrays – her late mother’s much-older half-brothers and sisters. The Murrays belittle and criticize Emily at her father’s funeral, and ultimately force her to draw lots to determine who will take her home with them, as no one wants her. Emily, heartsick at being unwanted, is relieved to draw the name “Elizabeth Murray,” because that means she will be living at New Moon Farm with kind Aunt Laura and friendly Cousin Jimmy – oh, and stern, unlovable Aunt Elizabeth. But Aunt Laura! And Cousin Jimmy!
Emily doesn’t have an easier time making friends outside the world of New Moon than she did with her harsh relations. Within the first half of the book, she is cruelly ridiculed by her teacher for writing poetry in class and feels the sting of betrayal by a false friend. While Anne has her moments at school, she never has to contend with a Miss Brownwell or a Rhoda Stuart. Some part of me liked – still likes – the fact that Emily was secure enough in her own self that she did not need to be loved by everyone, which I always felt Anne did.
#ReadingEmily As An Adult
I’ve re-read the Emily books several times since becoming “all grown up.” But I haven’t picked them up in a few years. The most recent re-read was not a complete re-read, but it was a special one – my much-loved childhood paperback in hand, perched on a hospital stool, quietly reading my favorite scenes to my preemie daughter (who is named after our dear Miss Starr – oh, and her great-grandmother, but mostly Miss Starr) in her isolette. But that was more than four years ago now, and I was undeniably distracted and shuffling through the book for the scenes I wanted my tiny three-pound daughter to hear. More Wind Woman, less Father dying, please.
So this month, thanks again to Naomi, was the first I’ve sat down with Emily and Ilse and Teddy and Perry and the cats and Aunts Elizabeth and Laura and Cousin Jimmy and Great-Aunt Nancy and that old witch Caroline Priest, in more than four years. As I knew I would be, I was immediately plunged back into the world of New Moon, Blair Water and Priest Pond. Most of the reading experience was very similar to my childhood reading of the Emily books – immersive, intense, and altogether delightful. But there were definitely nuances that I picked up on as an adult that completely escaped me as a child (much like when I re-read Anne’s House of Dreams and sobbed through the “wee white lady” chapter that I’d breezed through as a child).
- Dean Priest, get a hold of yourself. I was thoroughly, thoroughly creeped out by Dean “Jarback” Priest and his references to waiting for Emily. I think I threw up a little when Emily offered to kiss him goodbye as she was departing Great-Aunt Nancy’s house, and Dean said he wanted their first kiss to be different. Groooooooooooooss. Dean, you are THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OLD. Emily is TWELVE, and she is YOUR BEST FRIEND’S CHILD. Find a woman your own age and don’t be weird. Do better.
- I might be getting crotchety. Is it a rite of passage into adulthood to start seeing the perspective of the villains in your childhood favorites? The summer I first planted a garden, I began to sympathize with Mr. MacGregor and to be a bit reluctant to agree with my daughter when she would declare that Mr. MacGregor was “naughty.” I mean, those rabbits were eating up his garden! What’s he supposed to do? Do they even know how much time and effort a garden is? I felt the same about Lofty John in what I think of as “the affair of the poisoned apple that wasn’t actually poisoned.” Long story short: Emily befriends an older man who happens to be the sworn enemy of the New Moon Murrays, but it’s all good! She and her friends raid his apple orchard constantly and he lets them. But one day she spots an apple laying around while she’s loitering in his house while he isn’t home, and swipes it. Lofty John comes home, realizes Emily’s eaten the apple, and – to teach her a lesson – tells her the apple was laced with rat poison. Emily flies home, white as a sheet, convinced she is going to die, and spends the next few hours writing letters to all her earthly acquaintances, telling them she’s off. Eventually it comes out that Lofty John was just having a little fun with the traumatized Emily, and while telling a kid they’ve just eaten poison isn’t my idea of fun, I sort of sympathize with him wanting to teach her a bit of a lesson. I mean, he’d have certainly let her take the apple – he’d been quite liberal with access to his orchard – but Emily didn’t even ask. (Of course, his reaction to getting told off by Aunt Elizabeth after the episode was petty – but it led to Emily’s meeting Father Cassidy, who I wish was a much bigger character, so it’s all good.)
- Someone, please, take Mrs. Kent to Charlottetown and get her drunk and find her a man. While we’re on the subject of creepy adults, Mrs. Kent is frankly terrifying. Jealous of anyone and anything that her son Teddy likes, she kills his pets, steals his art supplies, and only allows Emily and Ilse on the premises because Ilse’s father, Dr. Burnley, says that playing with them is good for Teddy’s health. Mrs. Kent’s obsession with her son, and jealousy of anyone and anything that takes him from her even for a second, is profoundly unhealthy. I can’t believe that I never noticed that as a child – I simply blew past Mrs. Kent with a “Teddy’s mom is a drag but the Tansy Patch is such a charming name for a house!”
- Those first few chapters. Last but certainly not least – I always cried throughout the first few chapters, as Emily adjusts to, witnesses, and mourns her father’s death. But as an adult – they’re far more powerful than I ever realized. For the first time, I placed myself in Douglas Starr’s shoes (who was probably about my age when he died, based on his college friendship with the 35-year-old Dean Priest). Reading Emily as a child, I was terribly sad for her but didn’t give her father much thought in his own right. Reading Emily as an adult, I can imagine what he must have felt, knowing that he would have to leave his beloved daughter to fend for herself in the world, that his moments with her were dwindling and that he would not see her grow up and achieve her dreams and fall in love. (I’m getting weepy again.) Much like when Anne loses her first baby in Anne’s House of Dreams, I was knocked flat by a tragedy that I was well aware was coming, but that I had no idea would be as moving as it ended up being.
Thank you, again, Naomi, for hosting #ReadingEmily. What a wonderful excuse to revisit my childhood favorite!
Have you read the Emily books? Do you identify more with Emily, or with Anne?