My toddler is bouncing around the driver’s seat, making zoom-zoom noises under his breath. I’ve popped him up there while I organize the trunk. As I gather a tangle of hats, gloves and grocery receipts, the sky takes on an orange tinge. The sign of a good sunset.
“Lee,” I ask him, “should we drive to the sunset?”
“Lee might drive?” he proposes with a sly grin.
A few minutes later, both buckled into our appropriate seats, we pull into the lot overlooking the Magnolia bluffs. The Puget Sound below us pulses a nearly-neon shade of pink.
“To the sunset!” Lee screams, hopping across the sidewalk to the grass below.
“Yup, we’re here. Stay close please. What colors do you see?”
“A little blue, a little purple,” he chirps, tilting his small blond head. “Some white, some pink.” Then he repeats, “To the sunset, now?”
“Yup, yup,” I sing-song, “Here we are!” I check the time. We have friends coming over for dinner. I text my husband a picture of Lee silhouetted against the sky, and then a reminder to vacuum and preheat the oven.
I picked up Emily of New Moon again looking for an escape. I’ve always considered it a charming, light (if a bit spooky) book for kids, and on one level that’s true. L.M. Montgomery fills the chapters with what her publisher had come to expect: a fake poisoning, a false friend, a narrow escape from a bull, a mean schoolmistress, and of course, Emily’s dreams of becoming a famous author. But this time through, I’m caught up in a different plot altogether. It’s the tension between Emily and her caregivers. Emily is a very sensitive girl, but she has an incredibly strong sense of self. The adults in her life, particularly the women, do everything they can to stifle this spark in her, in the name of “raising a lady.” Can Emily survive the fears and expectations of her narrow-minded caregivers, or will they end up overpowering her and dulling her spirit? And why are all the women in this novel so incredibly mean?
In the opening scenes of Emily of New Moon, Emily Starr, our witchy little heroine, is a twinge feral and so full of wonder that she’s often overcome by spells of otherworldly, fortifying splendor. She calls this sensation The Flash.
Emily’s beloved dad, Douglas, has primed her to experience the world this way. He’s homeschooled her, nurturing her imagination and her interest in nature. Together they’ve created an insulated, strange, lovely world. Every tree in their backyard has a name. As soon as Emily writes a story, she reads it to her father. He knows all about The Flash.
But tragically, Douglas is in the late stages of tuberculosis. He’s far too weak to keep up with housework, so that duty falls to a dull hired woman named Ellen Green. Douglas dismisses Ellen as “a fat old thing of no importance,” and Emily mutters this mantra liberally when faced with Ellen’s judgements, rules, and rigid religion. Or when Ellen makes Emily put on her coat before leaving the house.
Douglas and Ellen are the first to establish a pattern in Emily of New Moon; adults in the novel seem to be sorted into those who nurture and those who squelch. It’s Emily’s job to learn from the nurturers and sidestep (or reform) the squelchers.
After Douglas dies, Emily is sent to New Moon to live with her mother’s family, The Murrays. Here, she meets her next squelcher and nourisher: Aunt Elizabeth and Cousin Jimmy. Aunt Elizabeth runs New Moon with an iron fist, upholding the Murray honor above all. Her strictness borders on cartoonish—she distrusts poetry and novels, she won’t let Emily “cut a bang,” and she despises cats. She couldn’t possibly be bothered to name a tree.
A childhood head injury caused Jimmy significant damage and left him unfit for a life on his own. Yet he can talk of fairies, recite his original poetry by moonlight, and speak with authority on the love of God. He is an unfailing champion of Emily’s, the one who first inspires her to try writing poetry herself. Like Douglas’ illness, Jimmy’s injury has forced him to the margins of society. These limitations seem to have rendered both men hyper-receptive to the beauty around them. And as such, both are particularly open to the power and force of Emily’s imagination and talent.
We’ll meet two more “nurtures” later in the book. Dean Priest, a distant relative with a spinal disorder severe enough to earn him the nickname “Jarback,” and Mr. Carpenter, a failed writer demoted to country school teacher, who teaches Emily and takes interest in her writing.
Dean turns out to be a squelcher in disguise—a controlling creep who will attempt to stifle Emily’s talent and spirit more intensely than any other character, out of what he considers love for her. He’ll come closer to succeeding than anyone else, too.
Emily can see only the good in Dean because he challenges her imagination and makes space for her unique perspective. And she struggles to find any good in Aunt Elizabeth, whose lack of imagination seems, to Emily, unforgivable. Still, Emily isn’t the narrator of the novel, and subtle lines foreshadow Dean’s danger, while casting Elizabeth in a bit more sympathetic light. Elizabeth has lived a life constrained by rigid gender roles, unvented grief, dogmatic religion, and endless domestic duties. A life like that doesn’t often nurture wonder.
It’s worth noting that the damaged men in the story, almost universally, find freedom in their marginalization. They’re excused from societal expectations and freed of the burden of daily chores or caretaking. Those duties fall to the women in their lives (wives, cousins, servants). Thus, their imaginations seem to flourish in an almost childlike way, making them excellent companions for Emily.
The marginalized women in the story don’t have that luxury—they are caring for themselves and their families while also shouldering the burden of their otherness. Instead of opening toward wonder, they close off in bitterness. The most glaring example of this is Teddy’s mother, Mrs. Kent, who has been mysteriously abandoned by her husband and lives alone in the Tansy Patch with Teddy.
Far from nurturing, she’s an active, pathological squelcher, setting fire to Teddy’s drawings because she’s afraid his artistic talent might take him away from her. This divide between the damaged, gentle male dreamers excused from societal pressures and the beaten-down, bitter female characters is such a blatant pattern in the novel that must have been intentional on Montgomery’s part. Maybe a comment on the impossibility of being both the heady dreamer and the household manager? Fascinating, considering that Montgomery was taxed with filling both roles for much of her lifetime.
But no, it’s not that simple. Hard as I try to pull a straightforward moral from the book, I can’t get it right. Like a skillful poem or a fairy tale, Emily’s story shrugs off the squeeze of straightforward conclusions. It just exists, in all its strangeness.
Still, I’m fascinated by all this tension between Emily and her caregivers, and I’m paying attention to Elizabeth in a way I never have before. Is she meant to be a villain, a cautionary tale, or a study in what grief does to a person? She’s certainly suffered enough tragedy in her life. Most glaring is her role in Jimmy’s head injury…he fell backwards into the well while dodging her fists, and most folks who know the story believe that she pushed him intentionally. That’s a lot to live with.
Add to that the grief of losing Emily’s mother Juliette, first by way of the family estrangement when Juliette eloped with Douglas, and then through her death by tuberculosis a few years later. At the turn of the century, crowded, unsanitary conditions of city life were considered breeding grounds for TB, so Elizabeth would likely have believed that keeping Juliette on the farm at New Moon (or at least safely married off to an upstanding, wealthy member of the local community) would have kept her alive.
Elizabeth clearly sees Emily’s time at New Moon as a chance to revise the past. Her frantic attempts to keep Emily “in line” range from comical to diabolical, and most of them backfire. The first time I read the book, I found Elizabeth’s behavior straightforwardly horrible. But as a pandemic parent, I’m dismayed to find myself identifying with Elizabeth’s fear-based scramble to keep Emily safe. No one else in the book seems very worried about Emily’s safety. Someone has to be…right?
But while Elizabeth may deserve sympathy, her controlling behavior is, in the end, indefensible. Because Elizabeth lacks imagination, she can’t see Emily, or anyone else for that matter, as having a whole, sacred sense of self, separate from Elizabeth. Elizabeth bullies those around her into conformity, so effectively that she’s come to believe she really can control people with her moods. (Aunt Laura, who also lives at New Moon, has survived Elizabeth with subterfuge—she’s always sneaking Emily cookies, writing paper, or kindness behind Elizabeth’s back, but she refuses to stand up to her.) Maybe Elizabeth does this to feel safe, to avoid having to deal with her grief. But Emily won’t let Elizabeth win—Emily is meant to break this cycle, to become something more than another exhausted woman living a narrow, fearful life.
It’s tough to cultivate wonder amidst laundry, doctor’s appointments, and to-do lists. It can be tempting to require conformity and shut down curiosity in the name of safety, schedules, or even just parental sanity. And sometimes it’s necessary. But if we let our overwhelm win out all the time, we’re aligning with the squelchers. I don’t think I’m anywhere near Elizabeth’s level of controlling, but I do think it takes vigilance to keep your parental imagination alive, to really see the kid you’re raising as a separate, whole little person. And reading Emily again has nudged me in the right direction.
Sometimes I set a timer and flip my phone upside down—out of sight, out of mind—to challenge myself to stay fully in Lee’s world for a bit. I sit down beside him and join in his play, letting him take the lead. (I’m with him all day, but it’s far too easy to let a whole day go by without really getting down on his level.)
When I try this, I’m always shocked by the pull I feel, after only a very few minutes…a compulsion to know what time it is, to check email or Instagram, to make a grocery list or pay a bill, to at least take a cute picture of Lee and text it to someone…to maintain, in some way, a connection to the world of adulthood. Even just to re-direct Lee’s play into the way I’d do it, or how a toy is “meant to be” played with.
It’s tempting to label my restlessness as straightforward boredom, but that’s not quite right. It’s a deeper discomfort, something like panic, even, at suspending my productivity altogether and humbling myself enough to learn from my little son. To witness who he really is, here and now. To enter his world of process-oriented imaginary play, where there is no end goal, just the present moment unfolding magically, again and again (and again).
Walter Brueggemann writes that our culture “shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger.” If our imaginations are in good working order, then we can imagine a truly different world. To those who benefit from the status quo, or those who cling to it because it’s all they know, that’s pretty dangerous.
In this way, kids are little revolutionaries, inviting us to join in their play again and again (and again). Each time we accept their invitation into wonder, we strengthen our own imaginative power. And that means we’re more fully able to see others, to let others be themselves, too.
Emily’s nurturers are able to engage fully with her imagination, to see the value of her curiosity, and we see the impact that makes on her. It’s powerful. I want to provide that more than anything for my son as he grows. But part of me can’t resist pointing out that while the nurturers nurture, someone else is usually cooking dinner.
On the drive back home, Lee asks it again: “Now we go to the sunset?”
“We did it, bud,” I say, suppressing an eye roll, turning up the radio.
He doesn’t drop it: “But where is the sunset? In the sunset? We can go next time.”
And it hits me, what he’s been asking. To Lee, nothing is off limits yet. He’d figured we’d go
ahead and drive directly there, into the clouds, into the sun itself. It doesn’t make any sense— it
is a lovely, strange, Emily-ish idea. I pull over for a minute to belatedly accept this invitation into
his world of wild imaginings. And together we watch the last streaks of pink and gold fade and
imagine climbing right on inside all that brilliance.
Christy Lee Barnes is a poet and educator from Los Angeles who now lives in Seattle with her husband and toddler son. Her publications include Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Cream City Review, The Seattle Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House’s “Broadside Thirty,” and other journals.