When we decided to read the Emily books this year, I played it cool. I said I’d like that and I mentioned that they were much quicker reads than Kristin Lavransdatter. I don’t think I let on how they were once something of an obsession. Maybe I didn’t realize it myself. I hadn’t thought about Emily in a long time.
And then I went to the library to get a copy. A different library than the red-painted one-room affair of my childhood, but one with similarly companionable librarians, one of whom immediately repeated the book title with a fond savor and asked, “Are you an Emily girl or an Anne girl?” Here we were, two women well on the other side of 35, warmly debating which L. M. Montgomery girl we most aspired to be.
They were shelved in YA now—a designation that barely existed when I read them.
The library copy is the same edition that I read as a girl. The cover shows Emily sitting by an attic window, a kitten at her side, writing long letters to her dead father. Immediately I also see the upstairs room where I read these books on my bed, beside a window, with my cat curled at my hip and the sugar maples that ringed the backyard presiding. I see Emily laughing with Ilse and Teddy and Perry—naming every wildflower patch, path, and stream around her new home at New Moon Farm. Sneaking doughnuts in the kitchen with her Uncle Jimmy. Mailing poems out for publication in secret. Crossing the countryside on foot with Ilse—much later, when she is in high school—to sell magazine subscriptions and sleeping in haystacks under the stars. And then her second sense. Doesn’t she have a vision that leads her to the bones of someone’s missing lover? And, later, another one leads her to the place a lost child is trapped?
When I was a girl there was no separation between the setting on Prince Edward Island in Canada where Emily lives and where I lived, in a little hill town in Western Massachusetts. It all sounded exactly like my home (minus the sea, which I have no memory of coming into the story, but which I will be searching for as I reread).
I played with a band of neighborhood children, boys and girls, whose parents would let them wander outside after school as long as they came home when called. We were always making our own footpaths through the woods, naming particular bends in the river, laying claim to certain climbing trees, and building forts with fallen branches. I had to be outside, every day, with a kind of physical urgency.
There was a time when I read the Emily books over and over again. I identified with her so much that I named my diary after her and addressed every entry to this fictional character. And yet, at some point, maybe when I turned thirteen, I stopped. I rarely thought of Emily—or any of Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island-rooted heroines again—even through two writing degrees in which I was fascinated with writers and their sense of place.
It’s possible that the Emily books first taught me to pay attention to the natural world, to learn the names of plants and flowers, to love the light of different seasons. And they certainly made me into someone who needed to retreat with a notebook and “write myself out.”
Was Emily just like me, or did I decide to be just like her?
Time for a reread.