Book Review: Before Green Gables

Disappointed? With the sun streaming in the east window, Bertha looked at her new daughter, all wrapped up in a warm flannel blanket, and decided that she had never seen such a beautiful baby. After the confusion and agony of childbirth, she was convinced that Anne had been born at sunrise, and no one ever corrected her. Walter was just staring at his child, stunned by an almost suffocating love.

Before she arrived at Green Gables, Anne Shirley had a difficult early life. Orphaned as a baby, she is sent from one foster-home to the next, caring for other people’s children though but a child herself, and escaping from her dark reality through the power of her vivid imagination. Curious, inventive, and outspoken, even at a young age, Anne battles to make a life for herself by searching out kindred spirits, finding solace in her books, and dreaming of the day she has a family of her own. Award-winning author Budge Wilson brings young Anne vibrantly to life in this highly anticipated and fully authorized prequel to the much-loved Anne of Green Gables.

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If you don’t know me very well, you might not know how borderline obsessed I am with Anne of Green Gables. Well, obsessed is such a harsh term. Maybe passionate would be a better word. So of course I was going to have lots of thoughts about this authorized prequel to one of my favourite books.

I do have a lot of thoughts.

I’ll start with the good. It’s a decent book, the writing is good and the story pays a respectful tribute to the original work. Budge Wilson certainly put a lot of care into writing it with lots of details from the original works. We can easily pin-point the details that Anne describes to Marilla when talking of her history. Wilson tried very much to have the book feel like it could fit seamlessly in with the rest of the series; there was a sense of whimsy and wonder even in the hardships that Anne faces as a young child.

But I think for all of its positivity, it went slightly too far in that direction. As much as the show Anne with an E went much too dark with their version of Anne’s backstory, Wilson sugarcoated poor orphan Anne’s history to the point where I was left wondering what the point was.

The main problem was that Anne wasn’t as starved for love as she is going into the original books. OG Anne Shirley barely had a friend in the world, thus had to be her own friend and make up Katie Maurice and Violetta to have some semblance of camaraderie. But this Anne seems to make friends everywhere she goes. From teachers, older siblings, and grumpy people in the woods, Anne has plenty of friends. She still imagines her two made-up friends into existence, but it almost feels forced when there are real people in her life that like her.

Wouldn’t any of them have thought to adopt her?

And sometimes hitting the beats from the original series felt quite contrived. As if Wilson knew she had to write these scenes so readers could connect them. Specifically when Anne learns how to treat croup. It was obscenely obvious that this was a “see? I know the books” moment, because after the first time Anne treats croup it’s almost never mentioned again. Even though Anne specifically states that she treated croup so many times when looking after the Hammond’s children, this event takes place with the Thomas family.

To someone who hasn’t read Anne of Green Gables as many times as I have, these issues might not bug them as much. But as much as important plot beats were included, there were some that I felt were lacking.

Things Anne is so adamant about in AoGG are almost completely missing in this book. Anne’s insistence that her name be spelt with an ‘e’ is only mentioned once, then never again even when she’s changing family’s or moving into the orphanage. Her imaginings seem to be mentioned in passing and never once does Anne imagine away her red hair or shabby clothes. The Anne that loves pretty things is missing. And poor Cordelia. This Anne never once imagines being called Cordelia despite one of the first things she says upon arriving at Green Gables being, “Will you please call me Cordelia?”

This Anne often felt more like a one-dimensional illustration of Anne, trying very hard to emulate the original.

This might be nit-picky, but Anne’s hair isn’t as much of an issue as I thought it might be when I started reading this book. When Marilla is teaching Anne how to pray after they’ve decided to keep her, Anne says, “[…] Mrs. Thomas told me God made my hair red on purpose, and I’ve never cared about him since.” And since her hair is one of her defining features throughout the series, I figured it would’ve come up more often than it did.

I rolled my eyes when Anne first encounters of solemn vow of friendship with someone at the orphanage who then turns around and stabs her in the back. It continued to leave me wondering about the point of everything.

In general, this is a nice book and I’m happy that Anne continues to be such an important character. But it certainly didn’t feel like Anne most of the time, which is a shame. Most of the time it felt like someone writing a very nice fan-fiction, but they didn’t actually know the books that well.

I think a better prequel would’ve found a better balance between the dark details of the hardships Anne has to face and the whimsical dreamings of her imagination. And it would’ve included Cordelia.

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