In this fourth book of the series that began with Anne of Green Gables, the infectiously romantic Anne Shirley devotes her first three years out of college to serving as a high school principal in the small town of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Narrated in part through Anne’s letters to her beau Gilbert, who is away at medical school, this career gets off to a rough start owing, in part, to the hostility of the town’s ruling family. Thanks to an inadvertent stroke of genius that will surely make you laugh, Anne wins them over (as she wins everyone over) in time to make her stay in Summerside a warm, happy period of teaching, match-making, whimsical adventures, and touching experiences.
Anne looks out for ways to brighten the future of her brightest students, one of whom goes on to become a famous actress, another to discover family he never knew he had. Anne keeps the silly secrets of the two widows who board her and their tough-minded housekeeper Rebecca Dew. Anne brings the unpopular teacher of her school’s middle class out of her crabbed, misanthropic shell. Anne spends a night in a house full of ghosts, provides respite care for a manipulative old biddy, saves several marriages from the danger of not happening, fails to prevent one from happening, and brightens the life of a little girl whose dead mother, deadbeat father, and deadly serious grandmother have made her childhood cold and lonely. And she manages all this not simply by being wise and virtuous, but sometimes by being silly and fallible and given to a streak of vanity that makes her endearing precisely because she is imperfect.
The admission is due: This is no great novel, in the sense of a book that holds itself together by the deft weaving of plot threads firmly knotted at the beginning and end of the pattern. Rather, it is a collection of episodes loosely held together by their common setting, their attractive heroine, and the distinct phase they represent in Anne’s life. A few slender strands of character development, both among the denizens of Summerside and the folks back home in Avonlea, give the book what additional unity it has; while, at the same time, many of the episodes in Anne’s Summerside sojourn involve characters specially introduced for them and scarcely mentioned afterward. It’s a far cry from a Dickens novel, in which that master of the form frequently and almost unfalteringly juggled the fates of dozens of characters from one end of a novel to the other.
Yet it is not surprising to read that after Dickens, Maud Montgomery is the most popular author in Canada, and appeals to many readers in the U.S. as well. Her books are wholesome without over-moralizing or becoming bland. They are spiced by wit, romance, nostalgia, and just a drop of melancholy sentimentality. Her heroine is as spirited and quick as she is virtuous and sweet. And while heartbreaking tragedy, conflict, sinister rumors, and creepy atmospherics sometimes come into play, these stories and the world in which they take place partake of an amiable spirit of lightness and grace. And so they offer a very welcome escape from these cynical and broken times.