Monday, August 10, 2009

Anne and Laura

A bedroom in the original "Green Gables"

I’ve recently started rereading the “Anne of Green Gables” books. Maybe I was inspired by a Facebook meme asking me to list the 15 books I’ll never forget. Maybe “Green Gables” is my official summer reading, infused as it is with memories of Junetime PBS pledge drives and afternoons too hot to do anything but read.

I think the real reason, though, is that I’m getting married in seven weeks. The “Little House on the Prairie” and “Green Gables” books shaped my ideas of womanhood like no other books I’ve ever read. As I prepare for my wedding, I revisit these touchstones of my girlhood to remind myself who I used to be and learn again who I am.

What strikes me now is how different they have appeared to me as I’ve grown. Following Anne and Laura in their journeys to adulthood, I can trace the evolution of my own attitudes toward adulthood and marriage. When I first read them, I was nine or ten or twelve years old and they embodied everything I wanted to be. I, too, was precocious, dreamy, gawky, the smartest in my class. Of course I dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder for Halloween! My life, I thought, was on an orderly path to a career in teaching, qualified independence, and the inevitable wedding to my Gilbert Blythe or Almanzo Wilder. Since there was no romantically-charged academic rivalry between me and any of my classmates, I figured the Almanzo model—quietly heroic, plainspoken—would be my fate.

After a few years at my feminist-leaning all-girls Catholic high school (yes, they do exist!), my opinion of the Green Gables and Little House books was entirely different. My readings of my childhood favorites were tinged with contempt; Anne and Laura forsook promising careers to get married and… that’s it? They quit? Just to spend all their time worrying about jam and babies? They might have been good enough icons for, say, the unenlightened 1950’s, but surely the late twentieth century needed feminine examples better suited to reversing millennia of male oppression.

I didn’t read Anne and Laura’s stories for many years after that, thinking that I’d left them behind. Then I met Tony. Our courtship was uneventful except for the remarkable serendipity of our first meeting—not storybook material at all. In the weeks and months leading up to our wedding, we talked about the future: careers, houses, children. I was surprised at the desires I found myself expressing, incompatible with the relentless ambition I once believed to be my duty as a Western woman.

Now, as I read their stories again, Anne and Laura’s choices don’t seem like inevitable defeat at the hands of the patriarchy. What stands out are their rebellions, the fierce spirit that inspired them to strike out on their own in times when women still depended on men for their livelihoods—and then to negotiate marriage on their own terms. I’m reminded that while a wedding may be the end of one book, it is the beginning of another.