It opens with two brothers, Beverly and Felix King, going to stay with their father’s extended family while he travels to Rio de Janeiro on business. The King family lives on the old family homestead, and Bev and Felix look forward to exploring all the old haunts their father has told them of. The branch of the family they are staying with includes a brother and two sisters, Dan, Felicity, and Cecily King. Another cousin, Sara Stanley, lives with a nearby aunt and uncle. Neighbor Sara Ray and hired boy Peter Craig round out the group.
Sara Stanley is called the Story Girl partly because there is another Sara in the group, but mainly because she has a unique voice and ability to enthrall children and adults alike with the way she tells stories. The book tells of the children’s interactions, adventures, and misadventures, and along the way Sara entertains them with stories. Some are family tales, some are local lore, others are fairy tales or classical stories.
The children range in age from 11 to 14, yet seem younger than children of the same age by today’s standards.
I wondered if one reason Montgomery told stories about children was because she could explore issues through a child’s innocence, lack of experience, and questioning that she might not feel quite the freedom to with adults. For instance, in one chapter the cat is unwell, and some of the children think one of the women in the village put a spell on him when he yelped because she accidentally stepped on his tail. Some don’t think so, but they agree that they need to make an appeal for her to remove the spell and explain that he didn’t mean any harm. They also get some medicine down him, and pray. When he gets well, they argue about whether it was the spell removal, the medicine, or the prayers that cured him. “Thus faith, superstition, and incredulity strove together amongst us, as in all history.” In another, one of them finds an article in the newspaper reporting that someone in the USA predicted the date for Judgment Day. They argue over whether it’s true and what to do about it and respond in a variety of ways.
One story that disturbed me a bit was a legend about how the Milky Way came to be (in the chapter “A Daughter of Eve”). As the story has it, two archangels fell in love, which God did not allow among angels, so He separated them to far sides of the universe. But they loved each other so much, they each began building a bridge of light toward the other, not realizing the other was doing the same. When they met, some of the other angels reported it to God and asked him to punish them. He said, “‘Nay, whatsoever in my universe true love hath builded not even the Almighty can destroy. The bridge must stand forever.” It’s not the fanciful story that bothers me so much as the thought planted in reader’s heads that there is something God is powerless against. In another part of the book, the children wonder what God looks like until finally one of them finds someone who says he has a picture of God in a book at home, and they buy the picture from him for 50 cents. When they see it, they’re sad and dismayed that He looks old and “cross” and intimidating rather than friendly and inviting. They all process this in different ways until they finally ask the minister, who assures them that, though no one really knows what God looks like, He assuredly does not look like this. He tells them to bury the picture. They’re relieved, yet,
We had lost something of infinitely more value than fifty cents, although we did not realize it just then. The minister’s words had removed from our minds the bitter belief that God was like that picture; but on something deeper and more enduring than mind an impression had been made that was never to be removed. The mischief was done. From that day to this the thought or the mention of God brings up before us involuntarily the vision of a stern, angry, old man. Such was the price we were to pay for the indulgence of a curiosity which each of us, deep in our hearts, had, like Sara Ray, felt ought not to be gratified.
To me, planting that thought from the other story that God is powerless against true love does the same thing. Even though we know that’s not true, that thought keeps coming to mind.
But most of the stories and happenings are much lighter. There is a lot of charm in the stories, and I particularly like LMM’s characterizations and how the children play off each other. But there is a bit of a sharp edge, too, when the children are mean to each other, like the constant references to Felix being fat or Dan’s larger than usual mouth. Some of LMM’s writing is lovely; some seems to me to overstep into purple prose. But one of the main points of the story that I love is:
There is such a place as fairyland – but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of the common day. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.
And I could identify with this, said of the Story Girl:
She loved expressive words, and treasured them as some girls might have treasured jewels. To her, they were as lustrous pearls, threaded on the crimson cord of a vivid fancy. When she met with a new one she uttered it over and over to herself in solitude, weighing it, caressing it, infusing it with the radiance of her voice, making it her own in all its possibilities for ever.
If I still had children of an age to read to, I am not entirely sure I would read this to them: if I did, it would be with some editing and discussions along the way.
One of the reasons I wanted to read this book was that the series “The Road to Avonlea” is based on it and its sequel, The Golden Road. I don’t remember seeing any of the series when it was originally on except for possibly a part of one episode at someone’s house. I had planned to see one before writing this review, but it’s not on Hulu or Netflix. There are excerpts on YouTube, but only 4 or 5 minutes each, with links back to Sullivan Entertainment, where they offer to sell them to you. DVDs are still available, but I didn’t want to buy them – I just wanted to see the first episode. Unfortunately our library system only has one Christmas episode from the series. The part I saw on YouTube had the same feel and look as Sullivan’s production of “Anne of Green Gables” with Megan Follows, but apparently they left out some of the characters and changed various details.
I listened to a free audiobook version on Librivox, which was read by volunteers across the country. Unfortunately, it sounds like it was read by volunteers. The sound quality wasn’t good on all of them: some had static or other noises. Some of the readers did better than others. But…it was free, Audible didn’t have it, and I had more room in my listening time than I did in my reading time, so I pressed on with it. I did get a copy of the book from the library to go over certain parts, and I just discovered a short while ago that the text is online here. I do want to read The Golden Road some time to see what happens with the children.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)