April 05, 2021
My name is Katherine Edwards, usually known as Katie, and I'm a bookseller in London, England. I first encountered Anne Shirley on my eighth birthday, when I was given the first books in one volume. I was a voracious reader from the age of three, but this hardback was the biggest book I'd ever owned. There seemed to be something familiar in the girl on the front cover, with her freckles, red plaits and private smile. I immediately felt that I knew her, which was confirmed when I started reading. It was the humor that I loved first; Anne's awkwardness and scatterbrained ways were so much like my own in a way I hadn't known in a fictional character before. On a deeper level, I sensed a "kindred spirit" because, like Anne, I felt like I didn’t fit in with my classmates. I was a sensitive child who felt things strongly, either soaring highs and crashing lows, who was more at home in make-believe and the past than in 1990s England.
A family friend tells me that their enduring memory of my younger self is of a little girl wearing a straw hat and pigtails (blonde, not red) with her nose in the Anne books. I read of Anne’s school and college days countless times, and I'm sure I borrowed the later books from the library, but I'm not sure how much I took in as a child. I was more interested in the themes of friendship and found family than romance and marriage, and it wasn't until my late teens that I returned to finish the series in earnest. But Rilla of Ingleside came as a shock. Over the years, Anne's world on Prince Edward Island had become a sort of timeless sanctuary for me. To read about war touching that cozy little world was a bittersweet ending to the series, which was why I sat up all night crying over the finale. It haunted me for a long time. Despite the more complicated emotions evoked by Rilla, or perhaps because of them, my love for the Anne books grew deeper still. I reread the first book annually, and the others on a regular basis too. Anne has been my most loyal ink-and-paper friend for more than quarter of a century.
I finally got to visit her home in September 2019. As a single woman in my mid-30s, whose friends have settled down, I couldn't wait around for a travelling companion; but it was liberating to realize I didn't have to plan around anyone else. What was stopping me from going to Prince Edward Island? I emailed a friendly guesthouse owner in Cavendish ("Avonlea") with my questions: I'm a solo traveler, I can't drive; is it at all feasible for me to take a holiday in this remote rural part of an unfamiliar country? Thankfully, she replied with encouragement and advice, and my holiday was booked. The inn was just located across a golf course from the Green Gables site, so I would be Anne's next-door neighbor. (Like Diana, was my first thought, although I later worked out that the directions were wrong, perhaps I was on the site of Mr. Harrison's house instead.)
I suppose it's fitting that in following in Anne's footsteps, my holiday did not go entirely according to plan. Firstly, my flights were changed, and I would be arriving at my guest house in the early hours of the morning instead of supper time; secondly, I missed Hurricane Dorian by two days. I refreshed my emails so many times in the 48 hours before I was due to travel, dreading a message telling me, "You can't come, there's a tree in your room." So it was almost a relief to reach Montreal and read the email warning me that the power was out. It was certainly an adventure pulling up in a taxi at 1AM and have to find my room with a tiny lamp, but I consoled myself that this made for a more authentic Anne experience.
The island had taken a severe battering by the storm and so many beloved trees were tattered or completely uprooted, but, except for one day, it was bright and warm while I was there. I spent a quiet, delightful holiday, enjoying retreading Anne's footsteps in the woods, picnicking on the seashore, and all the while mentally mapping the village from the books onto the real-life village. I found it easier than ever before to conjure up the fictional world over the real one, as though Anne was right there beside me, showing me around her hometown.
Of course the highlight of the trip was Green Gables itself! I'll never forget standing by the gate in the rain, eating poutine and staring up at the house, feeling my heart flutter as I realized that this was the closest it was possible to get to stepping inside my favorite book. To the surprise of the tour guide, I spent a good half-hour standing in the kitchen in a reverie, envisioning all the scenes that took place in that room. I could picture Mrs. Lynde bustling in the back door with her latest gossip, Anne poring over books at the table, Diana arriving in a frenzy because her sister was ill. Anne's bedroom was delightful, a room that felt oddly like my own, but the kitchen was the heart of Green Gables, where so many major events took place.
I left a piece of my heart on Prince Edward Island. I went there because of Anne, but I fell in love with the place for itself: its peace and beauty, as well as the wonderful, kind people I met on my travels. You can be sure that just as soon as it is safe to travel again, I'll be back.
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