Goodreads: Marilla of Green Gables
Published: October 23, 2018
A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness
Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother has dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.
In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.
Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.
It’s always difficult for an author to try to work in the world of a beloved author, particularly one with such a recognizable and complex style of L. M. Montgomery, and I admit I’m not always the type of reader who gives them the chance. I haven’t read Before Green Gables, for instance, because I simply wasn’t interested in some random person’s take on Anne Shirley’s life before arriving on Prince Edward Island. However, the idea of finding out Marilla’s story (even if not officially from Montgomery herself) was beguiling, and McCoy seems to have put a lot of thought and research into her work, so I was willing to give Marilla of Green Gables a try. The novel isn’t perfect, but it did feel surprisingly like home, like Avonlea, to me, and I think I can recommend it to Anne fans in good conscience.
Marilla’s character was actually a bit of sticking point for me. Writing characters as both children and adults is always a bit tricky (although Montgomery herself does an amazingly skillful job of bringing Anne herself from 11 to adulthood in her 8 book series), and I could see McCoy struggling with trying to write a Marilla who sounds like the sensible no-nonsense woman we know from canon but who also sounds lighthearted enough to be a young teen. (She’s a teen for most of the book, though the novel does jump a large number of years near the end.) I found the execution a bit choppy, particularly near the beginning, and it felt as though Marilla would switch kind of randomly from having fanciful ideas to spouting sensible statements one can imaging her making in middle-age.
However, I think some of the other characterizations were stronger and helped balance this out. I particularly liked Rachel White (not yet Lynde) whom McCoy imagines as a vivacious girl who does share her opinions indiscriminately but also is sociable and kind and has a sense of humor. You can actually see why she and Marilla might be good friends. I also thought the depiction of Matthew as reliable and introverted but not quite as shy as he is in Anne of Green Gables was fair.
The other point I’m a bit torn on is the plot. There are moments that really seem to bring Montgomery’s Avonlea to life–picnics, walks into town, minor confrontations with disgruntled teachers. But there is also the sense that McCoy felt the need to make things more “interesting” than apparently small town life is. (And she’s not alone. The recent crop of Anne adaptations keep adding “dramatic” scenes with people nearly drowning or with Anne accidentally being sent back to the orphanage, etc.) To this end, McCoy add a number of subplots focused on political rebelling, the question of women’s rights, and the Underground Railroad.
Now, Montgomery herself was no stranger to wild plot points, but I associate her with things like crazy proposals, people dangling precariously off cliffs, and possibly supernatural events (and, actually, these all occur in the Emily books, not in Anne.) McCoy’s plot points all seem very topical. Certainly they’re interesting. I’m not sure they’re in line with something Montgomery would write. And even though readers know that Marilla has a kind heart and strong spirit, I find it hard to imagine her acting as a conductor on the Underground Railroad or getting into political debates with the local men.
Yet the things I liked outweigh he things I was scratching my head at, and I do think McCoy largely got the spirit of the story right. It was nice seeing this vision of Avonlea before Anne got there, and I did learn some things about the existence of Black inhabitants of PEI (who are completely glossed over in Montgomery), which I’m interested into looking into further. So, no, of course this isn’t the Marilla story that Montgomery herself would have written, but it’s pretty good.