Desert Isle Keeper
Marilla of Green Gables
In her latest novel, author Sarah McCoy has reimagined the life of one of literature’s most iconic characters, Marilla Cuthbert, sweeping readers back to Green Gables long before Anne Shirley made her home there.
Marilla is only thirteen years old when her life is irreparably changed. Her beloved mother dies in childbirth, leaving Marilla to run the family home while her father and older brother work the farm. Marilla is initially uncertain of her own abilities to keep house, but as time passes, she begins to come into her own.
Her one connection to the world outside the small farming town where she lives is her Aunt Izzy, a spinster who has managed to make a name for herself as a skillful seamstress. Marilla wonders if she will ever leave her mark on the world the way her aunt has. A part of her longs to leave town and lead a bigger, bolder life, but another part of her feels bound to the home her family has christened Green Gables.
Things begin to seem a little less bleak for Marilla when John Blythe, the son of a neighboring farmer begins spending time at Green Gables. Marilla is drawn to his kindness and intelligence, and she begins to wonder what her life might be like as John’s wife. Unfortunately, politics get in the way of her blossoming relationship, and Marilla and John find themselves on opposite sides of some very serious social issues.
As the years go by, Marilla becomes a force to be reckoned with throughout Prince Edward Island. She joins the Ladies Aid society and works tirelessly to raise funds for an orphanage which also happens to be a way station for runaway American slaves. Through her work on behalf of those less fortunate than herself, Marilla gains a deeper understanding of her place in a world that seems to grow ever more complicated with each passing day.
Reviewers Shannon and Lisa read Marilla of Green Gables and got together to share their thoughts on the novel.
Shannon: I grew up loving the Anne of Green Gables books. I think there was actually a part of me that wanted to be just like Anne. Her sunny disposition and sparkling wit were qualities I yearned to possess. Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around reading the series, so I was both excited and a bit nervous when I learned that Sarah McCoy was writing a sort of prequel featuring Marilla Cuthbert. What initially drew you to the story? Were you also a fan of the irrepressible Anne Shirley?
Lisa: I definitely was – I grew up reading all of the books, and pretty much WAS some unholy Jo March/Anne Shirley combination during my youth (And was always disappointed that Anne ended up giving up writing to become a doctors’ wife, no matter how cute her relationship with Gilbert was!). I even own a cookbook written by L.M. Montgomery’s granddaughter. This is what drew me to the story – plus I love novel continuations from different points of vie.
Shannon: One of the best things about L.M. Montgomery’s books was the way she painted pictures with just a few simple sentences. Ms. McCoy is definitely a talented writer, but in a completely different way from Ms. Montgomery. Reading Marilla of Green Gables gave me some warm and fuzzy flashbacks to the Anne series, but the writing felt unfamiliar and a bit foreign. How did you feel about Ms. McCoy’s writing? Did it resonate with you, or did you find it a bit jarring when compared with Ms. Montgomery’s prose?
Lisa: I felt like she got pretty close, (her food porn descriptions were outstanding, which I honestly tend to think of as being Laura Ingalls Wilders’ domain as opposed to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s) especially with her seasonal and natural world descriptions. No one was going to exactly match Ms. Montgomery down to the letter, but I felt she did a far better job than say, Alexandra Ripley did with Scarlett. It did make me warmly nostalgic, but I didn’t find the differences particularly jarring. I really liked her observations about farm living, in particular.
Shannon: I found Ms. McCoy’s imagining of Marilla to be quite charming. I remember not always liking her when I encountered her in the early Anne books, so I wondered if Ms. McCoy would be able to make her into someone I could relate to. Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The Marilla of her imagining is overly practical, extremely smart, and kind of brusque, exactly how I pictured her. I loved seeing the events that shaped her into the no-nonsense woman who would one day become the closest thing to a mother Anne Shirley would ever know. How did you feel about Marilla?
Lisa: I agree; you can definitely see how this Marilla ended up evolving into Anne’s Marilla – she’s tough but she cares for others, she’s brilliant and knows her way about a kitchen; she’s a realist to contrast with the more fanciful people around her. I love that her harsh temper continues to be a defining and fitting characteristic.
Shannon: Let’s talk a bit about some of the supporting characters. I was delighted to encounter people like Rachel and John. I remember them well from Anne of Green Gables, but it was wonderful to get a peek into their early lives. Rachel was an incredible gossip, and I could see traces of that here although she definitely hadn’t perfected the art as a young woman. Did the supporting characters seem familiar to you? Were there any of them you particularly liked?
Lisa: I really loved the expansion of Rachel’s character, and I enjoyed the introduction of John, with his suaveness and his nerves and imperfections. But Rachel in particular was a total gem, and I loved her fleshing out and the bits we got of her, and the adventures she and Marilla ended up having together (“sinful thoughts” indeed!)
Shannon: I agree with that. I’m a big fan of books that feature strong female friendships, and Ms. McCoy does a stellar job with that particular aspect of the story. Speaking of supporting characters, how did you feel about Aunt Izzy? I thought it quite clever of Ms. McCoy to create a character like her. She served as a sort of window into the wider world for Marilla, something I think she desperately needed. She didn’t function as a surrogate mother, but Marilla still managed to learn a lot from her, even if she didn’t always realize it right away.
Lisa: I LOVED Aunt Izzy – a self-described doer in whom I could see a million Marilla echoes. Her discourse about how eating peppermint candy feels like “swallowing a star” was so ‘Montgomery’ to me. I loved both her sophistication and how she models a kind of template of womanhood for Marilla that she will follow in the future; she was perfect, and definitely my favorite original character in the novel.
Shannon: I loved that peppermint description as well. It was lovely and fanciful, embodying so much of what I loved about Anne’s world. I was intrigued by the budding relationship between Marilla and John. A part of me really wanted to see them end up together, even though such a thing couldn’t have been possible, given the events of Anne of Green Gables. There was something quite sweet about their romance. John was strong and wise, but he still had his faults, as did Marilla. I appreciated the fact that Ms. McCoy didn’t strive to make them into perfect characters. She allowed their personalities to really shine and I was able to feel the tumult of their relationship. Did you enjoy the romance?
Lisa: Oh man, the Marilla and John courtship was so CHARMING that it made the facts we know from the first novel (Marilla’s spinsterhood and life on the farm with Matthew; John has to be married to someone else for Gilbert to exist) frustrating. Their connection was so sweet, their literary talks, their flirtation, the meeting of their minds. I loved young-and-in-love Marilla and I also understood – with his inability to allow her to have her own personal political beliefs and her fiery sense of pride – why the relationship didn’t work out in the end. I loved that McCoy picked up on one line in Anne of Green Gables and wove a whole past for them both out of it.
Shannon: I was a bit surprised by the social justice Ms. McCoy chose to weave into this story. I never pictured Marilla as someone who was passionate about charitable causes, and yet the author was able to really make that work here. She was able to help me see Marilla in a completely new light.
Lisa: Actually, I wasn’t surprised by that. Montgomery’s work has plenty of social justice themes embroidered into it already, everything from the importance of female independence and industry (Katharine Brooks’ story in Windy Poplars; Leslie Moore’s in Anne’s House of Dreams) to the evils of war (subtly in Rilla of Ingleside but much more blatantly in the published short stories that are collected in The Blythes Are Quoted…). Marilla, after all, opens her heart and home to Anne; it’s fitting that she finds a way to deal with her grief by becoming more charitable and daring as time goes on. I enjoyed that part of the book too, and found the extended political discussions and building discussion about slavery made sense and worked within the scope of the general Montgomery world.
I think my only real frustration with the book is that there wasn’t enough Matthew, who I already think is pretty underappreciated in the first book. What did you think?
Shannon: I completely agree with you. I remember yearning for a father figure like Matthew when I was young, and I was really hoping to get to know him better here. He and Marilla obviously care deeply for one another, but I didn’t feel able to connect with him as a person in his own right. I wanted to spend more time with him, to really know what made him tick in a way I never could in the Anne books.
Shannon: What’s your final grade? I’m giving it a B+. It’s a strong novel that fits into the world of Green Gables very well. I wish the writing had been a little closer to that of L.M. Montgomery, but even so, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit and would definitely recommend it to fans of Green Gables everywhere.
Lisa: I’m going higher than you with a flat-out A; this was a pretty flawless read; the book is beautifully done and something Montgomery likely would have approved of as a legacy work. I loved every little word, and it’s my second-favorite YA book of the year.