Writers of place. It’s a neverending debate in the travel writing world, no matter how you phrase it: what makes good travel writing? Who is a better travel writer? My own contention that novelists are often better at creating a sense of place than travel writers is well established. But it was the comment by Caitlin Fitzsimmons of the Roaming Tales blog last week that reminded me of one of the most powerful writers of “place” in the history of popular fiction: L.M. Montgomery. Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the wildly famous Anne of Green Gables series (of which there are no less than 8 books), as well as several other series and stand-alone novels, including the Emily of New Moon books, which Fitzsimmons and I both agreed were our favorites.
These books, the Anne series in particular, spend a lot of quality word coinage on their setting: the sandy, small, achingly beautiful Prince Edward Island off the eastern seaboard of Canada. Long passages detail its beauties, its flora, its villages and peace, its seasons. At the beginning of Anne of Green Gables, as Anne gets her first sight of the blossoming beauty of PEI, she gets right to the heart of what we mean by a “sense of place:”
“‘Pretty? Oh, pretty doesn’t seem the right word to use. Nor beautiful either. They don’t go far enough. Oh, it was wonderful — wonderful. It’s the first thing I ever saw that couldn’t be improved upon by imagination. It just satisfied me here’ — she put one hand on her breast — ‘it made a queer funny ache and yet it was a pleasant ache.’”
How well I know that feeling.
Perhaps even more swaying than Montgomery’s descriptive talent is the love the characters hold for their island. To these independent-minded, creative, and often ambitious women, almost no man can take the place of the Island in their hearts. Yes, the stories are about human love and the trials of growing up, but the reader senses that, as long as the heroine can live and be nurtured on her beloved PEI, she might just be able to live without the man who is right for her. Consider this passage from Emily Climbs, in which the heroine Emily Starr turns down the chance of a lifetime, to leave her provincial home and her struggling ambition to be a writer, and work at a New York magazine:
“I know life is rather cramped here in some ways – but the sky is as much mine as anybody’s. I may not succeed here – but, if not, I wouldn’t succeed in New York either. Some fountain of living water would dry up in my soul if I left the land I love.”
I’ve been to this island twice, and never doubted it was the books that brought me there. The second time was with my husband, when after the September 11th events of 2001 we had to hurriedly cancel a trip to Australia and were left with two weeks of vacation and a desire to leave the country. We rented a car and roamed all over the eastern provinces of Canada, looping through PEI and ending up halfway up Newfoundland before turning around for Boston and home.
It was the first trip, however, that solidified the love for this island that the books had already created. My first summer after college, my father was working in Russia, and my impractical, spontaneous mother wanted to get out of the house and do something fun. She settled on Prince Edward Island, both of us having loved the Anne books well and long, and having fallen in love with PEI from a distance. It’s a long way from the rugged Rockies of Montana to the gentled coastline of Prince Edward Island, and we’re not just talking flying time.
Exiting a freak June snowstorm, we flew to Montreal, and from there took a train further east, followed by a ferry to PEI and finally a car rental. To preserve the Green Gables and PEI experience, we would have happily gone by horse-drawn buggy, but none were available. In fact, our first landfall in Charlottetown — which in Montgomery’s books is the elegant “city” that Anne visits from her village of Avonlea — with its traffic and big shopping mall, was a bit of a disappointment. But on this tiny island we didn’t have to go far to reach the atmosphere of Montgomery’s world. We stayed, in fact, in a B&B run by a loyal Montgomery fan, in the actual house L.M. Montgomery had grown up in. It was, of course, Green Gables.
We roamed all over the island, which sounds more adventurous than it was, as it takes about half an hour to drive from one end to the other. On foggy roads and sunny days, we walked among the dunes, looking for the sense of place that comes across so vividly in the books, and, more to the point, hoping deep down to capture something for ourselves of that unquestioning sense of home that L.M. Montgomery’s characters feel there. In her books, it is the homebodies you sympathize with, never the wanderers. They are the dissatisfied, the ill-at-ease.
But the modern island itself felt ill at ease, even then, and more so when I visited with my husband in 2001. The books are so popular that PEI’s tourist industry never seems to stop growing. Hotels and “Green Gables Theme Parks,” tawdry and tacky and horrid, pop up all over the place. While the island was still beautiful, it was cashing in on its literary ancestors in a manner that L.M. Montgomery, with her lyrical old-fashioned way with words, could never have described. She wouldn’t have known how to reconcile the “enchantment in the curve of the dark-red, dew-wet road beyond – remote, spiritual allurement” with roadside blow-up Anne dolls advertising mini-golf.
And neither could I. It was hard to see how a love of beautiful stories, and love of the place they describe, could birth such ugliness. Hard to see how the busloads of Japanese tourists (Anne of Green Gables is a common book used in Japan to teach English, we were told) could be happy with cheap lobster dinners at a plastic hotel after reading of rolling farmland and limpid, shimmering ponds, and proud apple trees growing wild in hidden places.
Still, the air of Montgomery’s books lives, no matter how many wretched attractions are built. Because her words did not create the Island – it was the other way around. The Island created her, and through her, the books that have created such love for generations.
It is interesting, all the same, that stories based essentially on a heroine’s love for her home and desire to stay there inspire travelers from all over the world. What is it, exactly, that we’re looking for in visiting Anne of Green Gables’s Prince Edward Island? Its beauty, sure, and the timeless characters, but I can tell you right now what really makes us fall in love with the place is Montgomery’s sure knowledge that love is only meaningful if it starts with the soil beneath your feet.