The plot for this book is not very involved—preteen redheaded orphan is adopted by elderly brother and sister, who intended for a boy to help them with farm work but decide to keep her anyway. Said redhead is an absent-minded dreamer with a terrible temper, both of which get her into various kinds of trouble.
To me, the most remarkable thing about this book, which has sold more than 50 million copies since it was first published in 1908, is that there isn’t much of a plot. There’s no rising and falling action, no great stakes once Matthew and Marilla make the initial decision to keep Anne in Chapter Two. This book is driven purely on its characters and the crazy, stronger-than-any-fandom, take-that-One-Direction love for them that readers have developed over the past century. Not to overstate it, but this book also features the most devastating death in all of literature. I won’t tell you who it is, but just know that you will most likely never recover.
Here’s a breakdown of the main players:
Anne Shirley: Anne’s most endearing quality is her ability to get herself into ridiculous situations. Among other adventures, she dyes her red hair green after buying snake oil off of a traveling salesman, throws herself onto the Barrys’ guest bed in which Diana’s elderly aunt is unfortunately sleeping, creates ghost stories so vivid that she becomes afraid to walk through her own backyard, and almost drowns in a flatbed boat because she is so engrossed in acting out a poem that she fails to realize it is sinking. She’s also prone to fits of dramatics, epic temper tantrums and bouts of intense stubbornness. I love all of the Anne books, but this first volume, where her temper and imagination are completely out of control, is by far the best.
Marilla Cuthbert: Marilla is rigid, unsympathetic and pragmatic to a fault, but by the end of this book you will love her like a warm chocolate chip cookie. She doesn’t give her affection away easily, which makes it all the more sweet once won. Despite her best efforts to remain indifferent to Anne, Marilla’s defenses come crumbling down, and soon she cannot imagine her life without her..
Matthew Cuthbert: Matthew is Marilla’s painfully shy brother. He doesn’t speak much, but makes every word count. Matthew is the first to see Anne’s value, and it’s because of him that she’s allowed to stay at Green Gables. Matthew drives almost none of the action, but it is because of him that Anne finally gets her much-coveted puffed sleeves. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Matthew in their lives.
Diana Barry: Diana Barry, she of the dark curls and rosy complexion, is Anne’s bosom friend. If it seems a little strange that imaginative Anne would latch on to someone as (sorry, Diana) dowdy as this, consider it a testament to Anne’s loyalty. Diana is the first friend that she makes, and therefore remains her best friend for life. Diana plays the straight man, grounding the story when Anne flies off into fits of imagination. She also gets herself completely wasted on currant wine thinking it to be raspberry cordial, but that’s another story. Don’t worry, Diana. We’ve all been there.
Gilbert Blythe: Gilbert is handsome, smart, funny and charming, and Anne hates his ever-loving guts. Gilbert, wanting to get the new girl’s attention, made the fatal mistake of calling Anne “Carrots,” and she refuses to speak to him for the next four years. Anne actually gets over her hated of Gilbert after a year or two, but she’s dug herself into too much of a hole to admit it. As a person who is perhaps known to have a stubborn streak myself, I can relate to that position, and it is the worst. Eventually Gilbert makes a sacrifice for Anne that she can’t ignore, but it is a long, long way back for him.
Rachel Lynde: Mrs. Rachel Lynde is one of the most underrated characters in this book, that’s what. It should tell you all that you need to know that she has a husband, Thomas, who never speaks a single word throughout the entire eight-book series. Rachel is a gossip and doesn’t see much value in self-censorship, but I’ve always kind of liked her. You know where you stand with a Rachel Lynde.
Do you want to know a really scandalous bit of trivia? According to an infallible source (Wikipedia), L. M. Montgomery based Anne’s physical appearance on a photo of Evelyn Nesbit, aka the chorus girl whose affair with Stanley White inspired the Crime of the Century. I mean, Anne would never.
I’m sure you’ve read this book before (or at least seen the excellent CBC movie version), but if not, don’t worry: Tomorrow is another day, with no mistakes in it yet.