A few nights ago I read the ending of Anne of Ingleside, the last book (written, not chronologically) in the Anne of Green Gables series to my son. The final scene includes Anne, after a long day, looking in on her sleeping children. Above the head of one of them is the shadow of a cross from a window pane, an omen, L.M. Montgomery writes, "of a cross-marked grave 'somewhere in France.' " I remembered puzzling over that passage as a child, and I interrupted the reading to explain that in a subsequent book (chronologically, but written before Anne of Ingleside), the character dies in World War I.
The Anne of Green Gables books I checked out of the library when I was a child were hardbacks with little circular pictures in the center of a long-haired girl who managed to look very turn-of-the-century and very 70s at the same time. Reading the books today is remembering reading them as a child, puzzling over old-fashioned things I couldn't understand, being secretly enthralled by the darker episodes*, living entirely in the world Montgomery had created. Oddly enough, there were two books in the series -- Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside -- which were not in the library and which were not even referred to by the publisher who had brought out those hardbacks. I found out about these books on the visit to Green Gables mentioned in my recent post, and had the pleasure as an adult of reading them, and some other Montgomery titles I hadn't known about, for the first time.
When I began reading them to my son I was a little doubtful. I cut out a lot of the more flowery stuff, but other than remarking, "Anne talks too much," he took to them. Because he is a child who doesn't take to change, I'm still reading them to him. I wondered a little why he liked them, however, and it occured to me one day that that that, too, is related to his autism. In the Anne books, emotions are writ large. They're easy to understand. I think it's something of a myth that autistic children don't read emotions at all; I'd say it's more accurate that they prefer emotions to be simple and straightfoward. No guessing, no gray areas.
It illustrates that unpredictability of literature that Montgomery's books are still going strong 100 years later while so many of her contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. But for all the comfort her books provide, they're never sentimental. She had too much humor for that, humor that she uses to puncture any possible flights of fancy. And then there was the dark side that so gripped me as a child: underneath the message of love and reason, problems happily solved, is a near-continuous narrative of unhappy marriages, tyrannical families and poverty. The tension between these two things gives an electrical charge to her books and is one of the reasons why, I think, people still read them.
*The Anne books are full of stuff that would never be put in a children's book today. Example: on p. 50 of Anne's House of Dreams we are casually told about a man who is "slow in the uptake" because his father threw a stump at him when he was a child. This is the same book where, a few chapters later, a character narrates how she saw her brother killed before her eyes in a farming accident and then walked into the parlor on her birthday and found her father had hanged himself.