Gather a group of women in their thirties, mention Anne of Green Gables, and watch what happens: their faces will soften, their eyes focusing on some long ago literary moment, when they read, discovered, and came to love little Anne Shirley of Green Gables.
This moment has always been a bit uncomfortable for me because until last month, I had never read Anne of Green Gables. Introduce that fact to the same group of women, and watch those wistful looks of nostalgia turn to confusion and shock.
For many of my friends, Anne Shirley was the heroine of their youth. It’s not as if I was rudderless. I had my own heroine. Whenever someone mentions A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, my face softens in a similar fashion. My heart swells with love for Francie Nolan, for her strong mother, and her flawed father. For Neeley, her brother, who was so close in age to Francie, the way my brother was to me. Francie was the heroine of my youth, the girl I grew up with, as I read that book every year. It has lost nothing in the passage of time. I love her still.
But this post isn’t about Francie Nolan.
I always post pictures of the books I’m reading on Instagram, and when I posted my picture of Anne, I got so many comments! People love Anne Shirley. My friend Monique said she was jealous – “you have 8 great books ahead of you!”
And privately I thought, oh goodness, I’m not going to read all eight books.
And then I read Anne. And now, I have to read all eight books. I can’t leave now. I have to find out how it all turns out.
But it struck me, as I read, that I was probably coming to this book differently than my friends, those women in their thirties who first found Anne Shirley when they were around her age. I’m thirty; though I loved Anne Shirley, I also tended to see Marilla’s side of things. In the moments when she wanted to laugh at Anne, I did, too. Would I have felt that way if I had found Anne when I was a child? Probably not. Marilla would have seemed strict, boring, not-fun.
Samantha Ellis wrote a fantastic book called How to Be a Heroine, in which she revisits all the heroines of her youth, including Anne Shirley. She does a wonderful job of capturing how these heroines shape us, how they raise us, in a sense. They introduce romance, anger, frustration, unfairness, wonder, and whimsy to us. But I don’t latch onto heroines as an adult the way I did when I was younger. I fear I’m not likely to find another Francie Nolan. If I had my panel of women in their thirties seated in my living room, I would ask them: have you found your adult version of Anne Shirley?
Y’all know how I love the movie You’ve Got Mail, right? As I pondered over this Anne Shirley-adult heroine situation, I thought of Kathleen Kelly’s line about reading: “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” It’s a singular, special moment in our reading lives. That’s what’s so interesting about Ellis’s book – when we go back to look at the heroines of our youth, how do they hold up? What do we find when we approach them not as children or teenagers, but rather as adults with experience and scars and grown-up ideas?
I read Anne so that I could then read Ana of California by Andi Teran, a take on the plot of Anne of Green Gables. In place of innocent orphan Anne, we get Ana Cortez, an orphan whose life has been touched by gang violence in east L.A. She goes to a farm as a foster child, works hard to learn the land, but being an outsider, trouble follows her, and her future seems as tumultuous as ever.
Ana isn’t the darling that Francie is for me (or Anne is for others). I’m an adult now. I don’t expect that sort of thing. But I don’t think she’s supposed to be that darling either. Ana of California is a wonderful adaptation of the story (not to mention an all-around great book, on its own), a great way to see how the same plot might work in a contemporary setting. And what resonated for me was the recognizable grit of Ana of California. She’s still a polite young woman, an orphan who has been dealt a terrible hand in life but manages to keep kindness in her heart. I appreciated that. But I also appreciated that the conflicts had been updated. It makes me think that Andi Teran wasn’t trying to give us a carbon copy of Anne, but rather giving us a heroine we could respond to as adults: Ana, sweet and flawed and damaged and still, somehow, resilient. Because that’s a big thing we learned from our heroines, right? Resilience. And maybe, as an adult reader, that’s what I can look for: not a heroine to raise me, but a messenger with a story to tell me.