(Note: This review contains some spoilers. The reviewer has an online acquaintance with the author.)
This year — the 75th anniversary of the death of L. M. Montgomery — has seen a resurgence of interest in the beloved author. A new miniseries based on her best-known work, “Anne of Green Gables,” is set to premiere on Netflix next month. And a new Young Adult novel about the author’s teen years, “Maud,” has just been released. Readers will be intrigued to discover just how closely Montgomery’s life paralleled that of her perennially popular heroines.
We meet Maud Montgomery (she never went by “Lucy,” her first name) as a bright, restless 14 year old, being raised by strict grandparents in the small town of Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Like some of the characters she will grow up to create, Maud in many ways is a neglected and lonely girl. After her mother died when Maud was a baby, she was passed around among relatives — some of whom did not hesitate to let her know that she was a burden. Just recently, she was sent away for a while to stay with an aunt after getting into a conflict with her teacher. Now back in Cavendish, she has some stability but very little affection in her grandparents’ home.
Maud finds solace in reading, writing, and friendship. But she’s soon in trouble again, when one particular friendship — with Nate, the Baptist minister’s stepson — starts to blossom into romance. Innocent as their relationship is, it causes gossip and consternation over their religious differences, as Maud is from a devout Presbyterian family. Maud is sent away again, this time to her father’s house in Saskatchewan.
At first excited to see her father, Maud is bitterly disappointed to meet a spiteful stepmother who puts her down and expects her to spend more time caring for her younger stepsiblings than attending school. Maud dreams of becoming a writer and teacher, but she increasingly feels trapped and helpless, at the mercy of relatives who often see her as nothing more than unpaid labor. It will take great courage and some very difficult choices for her to break free and create the future she wants for herself.
Though she has altered some names and dates (as explained in an author’s note), Melanie Fishbane overall has been quite faithful to the facts of Montgomery’s life, using the novelist’s journals among other historical sources. The setting of “Maud” will be familiar to anyone who loves Montgomery’s Anne books and other writings. Fishbane brings to vivid life the beauty and charm of the little Canadian island that Montgomery loved — along with the rougher atmosphere of her father’s home in Saskatchewan — even while she also carefully recreates the sometimes stifling small-town atmosphere of Cavendish. Here too are the dreamy but intense nature, and the great capacity for love and friendship, that we see in many of Montgomery’s own heroines.
It’s painful to watch Maud’s hopes for deeper relationships with her family, especially her charming but weak father, be dashed again and again. But it’s inspiring to watch her determination to keep pursuing her dreams despite repeated setbacks. And in the end, she even finds a new, stronger connection with the grandmother who loves her more than she realized.
Personally, I would have liked more exploration of Maud’s state of mind as she went through her various disappointments and uplifts, along with more exploration of her creative process as she developed into a working writer. (The author’s note mentions that Montgomery struggled with depression all her life, but we don’t see much of that in the novel itself.) Nonetheless, Fishbane does an excellent job of balancing the young girl’s dreaminess with her grit. She also shows how important Maud’s faith in God was to her, along with her relationships with her friends.
There are very few content issues to be concerned about in the book. The main one is that Maud finds out some things she didn’t want to know when she tries to learn more about her dead mother. It turns out her parents eloped, and it’s hinted that her mother might have become pregnant with Maud before marriage, which helps to explain a lot of the condemnation and gossip that Maud still has to deal with. Maud herself becomes involved in two different romances, but they go no further than kissing. (In her sentimental Victorian-era crowd of friends, there’s a lot of kissing and hugging among the girls as well as between girls and boys.) Still, Maud’s romances are much more serious than those of a girl her age would be today, with talk of marriage coming up on occasion, since teenage marriage was much more accepted in her time.
Also, Maud has to deal with unwanted advances from her teacher in Saskatchewan, Mr. Mustard, and resorts to disobedient and defiant behavior to try to get rid of him. As Fishbane explains in the author’s note, this sort of thing was not an uncommon occurrence in Montgomery’s time — with the blame often being put on the student, even if, like Maud, she didn’t want the attention.
Preteens and teens who love the Anne books, the Emily books, and the various other classic novels Montgomery left us — and that’s a lot of preteens and teens! — will find much in “Maud” to love as well. They’ll be both enlightened and enchanted by the story of the girl whose life was much more severely limited than that of her own characters, but who pushed on with a strong and undaunted spirit.
Image copyright Penguin Teen Canada. Review copy obtained from the publisher.