Becoming Anne: PEI’s superhero

Toronto Star, Oct 11, 2017: BORDEN-CARLETON, P.E.I.-I expect the little girl in fake red braids to collapse in giggles as she poses as Anne of Green Gables in the gift shop’s dress-up parlour. I do not expect the grown man to grab the tips of his braids and strike a girly pose in his borrowed frock. He doesn’t giggle but I’m pretty sure he’s having every bit as much fun.

A teenager (who brings her own red braids to the party) tells me she’s read Anne of Green Gables, but most of the other wannabe Annes admit, some sheepishly in their green dresses, that they haven’t.

It doesn’t matter a whit. With all the movies, TV shows and Japanese cartoons, Anne has become bigger than the books that created her. Only a fraction of people who line up to pose as Anne at Shop and Play have read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books.

This pleases me.

I’m about half way through Anne of Green Gables but I clutch my plastic daisies like a boss, smiling for Don Maxfield, Shop and Play’s co-owner/art director.

“Anne-tanstic!” he declares, Anne-thusiastically. “We can make an 81-year-old man look like Anne of Green Gables. There’s something magical about the Anne hat and hair.”

This explains my grin, the straw hats equipped with red braids in shops all over P.E.I., as well as the middle-aged women posing in borrowed pinafores at Heritage Place at Cavendish.

Anne is here, too, talking with doppelgangers large and small and dropping as many excruciatingly big words as she has painted freckles on her face. Pint-sized groupies follow her around: “My teacher really likes you,” one little girl tells Anne. “I read a book and you were in it,” says another.

As well as touring the house adorned with green gables (one similar to where Montgomery’s cousins lived), I wander down trails named after the books, Lovers Lane and the Haunted Wood. Adjacent to the park, Montgomery’s grave is adorned with red geraniums and, across the street, I find rocks in the ground, all that’s left of the house where the author grew up.

Literary fans drive all over the island, taking in rolling green hills, ocean views and pretty white churches, to see the house where Montgomery was born in New London, the pond at Park Corner that inspired Anne’s “Lake of Shining Waters” (and countless motel names) and the schoolhouse in Lower Bedeque where the author taught in 1897. (If you miss the tiny building, you’ll find yourself on a narrowing red road with a lighthouse at the end. When you find your way back, you’ll learn the original schoolhouse disappeared in 1874 when displeased townsfolk just took it away one night).

Whether you know Lucy Maud from Lucille Ball, chances are you know the story of Anne. It has resonated around the world for more than 100 years because she “triumphs against the odds, gets into scrapes along the way but always finds her way out,” says Hannah Dawson, a guide at Green Gables Heritage Place. “And people like that she’s so outspoken. There’s something huge about that.”

Everyone cheers Anne, the newly arrived orphan, when she lets the neighbour have it for insulting her looks. “Don’t we all have Mrs. Lyndes that we wish we could go, ‘No, you can’t treat me that way?’ ” says AJ Bridel, who dresses up like Anne for a living as the lead in Anne of Green Gables — The Musical.

The actress, the 18th to play Anne at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown since 1965, likens Anne to a superhero, with braids and courage instead of a cape and the ability to fly.

“She pushes social norms. That’s why people dress up like her. She’s someone that we can be,” says Bridel.

Before the show, people stick their heads in the painted Anne cutout in the lobby and drop by the dress-up station with its row of garments and table set for tea.

We all want to be Anne, at least for a few minutes. Donning the braids can be emotional for Japanese women and girls, who grew up on a steady diet of the feisty redhead. “We have a box of tissue over here,” says Maxfield at the gift shop. “We have to wipe away the tears, dry them off to get another picture before the next group comes in.”

Whether you fly all the way from Japan or drive across Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick, visiting the “Land of Anne,” provides much scope for imagination.

“Anne is one of those classic stories,” says Jeanette Arsenault, Maxfield’s partner. “It describes beauty in people, beauty of place and how you can live in peace.”

That’s why Anne is at the top of my stack of books to finish. As Arsenault says, “The world could use a lot more Anne.”

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