The reluctant pilgrim – Part 2: Green Gables

by Steve Brock on August 12, 2011

Green Gables: Note the hat with attached pigtails hanging on the carriage

I am a reluctant pilgrim.

No, not just for the reasons we covered last time regarding how the journey is as important as the destination. I’m reluctant to undertake a pilgrimage where my head tells me the destination might be interesting but my heart says, “Eh, well, whatever.”

Such was my journey to the land of Green Gables.

My family and I have one day on Prince Edward Island, Canada. We rent a car in the capital, Charlottestown and drive through lovely farmland and eventually arrive in Cavendish, the home town of Lucy Maud Montgomery. She’s the author of Anne of Green Gables and a million (or so it seems) sequels about the fictional feisty red-headed orphan who ends up being adopted by Marilla and Matthew in the fictional house known as Green Gables in the fictional town of Avonlea.

Fictional. Remember that word.

My friend Dave encouraged me to read the first book, Anne of Green Gables. Original characters, insightful writing, a classic. Plus, it was free on a Kindle: say no more. And Dave was right. It’s a great book.

Having just read it before this trip, how could I pass up a chance to actually visit Green Gables itself and see the place where Montgomery lived and wrote and is even buried? Bigger pilgrimages have been planted with smaller seeds than this.

We arrive in Cavendish (upon which Avonlea is based) and plunk down $24 Canadian for the four of us to tour “Green Gables” and also the author’s “home,” now run by descendents of her relatives.

Upon entry, we pass the museum and large gift shop, go through the barn and then we behold the house; Green Gables itself. Only it’s not Green Gables. That’s a fictional place. And it’s not the house where Montgomery lived (that house no longer exists: you can only see a stone outline of its foundations about a mile east of here). This house instead was the home of a cousin of Montgomery’s.

They’ve redone the place quite nicely. We walk past each room – Anne’s, Marilla’s, the kitchen – all re-created to match the book. They even have added nice touches: Anne’s flowers or Marilla’s shawl and missing brooch. 

And did I mention Anne herself? Yes, indeed. There she is, standing outside by the carriage (sans horses), all red hair and freckles along with her friend Ruby (who looks about 25 – she’s 15 in the book).

The crowds adore this Anne.

I try to convince my family that this is not some local actress but is in fact, Anne of Green Gables. She is real! But my boys just give me a look like, “Grow up, Dad.” They then try to persuade me to put on the straw hat with attached red pig tails which sits on the carriage seat. This “Anne wig” has been tried on by probably 200 other sweaty tourists this day alone so they can get a picture of themselves in the carriage looking like Anne.

I demurely pass on this opportunity.  

We actually try to get a photo of “Anne” later on, but she is nowhere to be found. My teen sons crack themselves up by explaining how she is “off set” behind the barn lighting up a cigarette and having a couple brewskies before she has to go back to being in character. Clearly my wife needs to exert greater influence on their character.

After all this excitement around the house, we wander down “Lover’s Lane,” through the “Haunted Woods,” past the foundations of the house where Montgomery lived and we arrive at the bookstore. There, the great, great, great granddaughter of Montgomery’s own grandparents tells me more than I ever wanted to know about Lucy Maud Montgomery (Maud to her friends).

And therein I begin to realize the problem with this pilgrimage for me: More is not better. More is just more. I have reluctantly accepted that this is, in fact, a pilgrimage, but it feels more manufactured than pursued. Though I’m sure that this place is highly meaningful to many of the fans who flock here from all over the world (Anne is HUGE in Japan, for example), I come away a bit disenchanted.

The idea of framing this place as a pilgrimage destination (though few would use such terms) forces the experience I had with the book into something more than I think it was intended to provide, at least for me.

To me, there was a real author who wrote a real book about a real place. She fictionalized the rest and yet that fiction, which is so wonderful in your mind as you’re reading the book, becomes somewhat trivialized when overdone through re-creations of the scenes from the novel.

Meaningful travel is all about experiencing authentic places with all your senses. Yet some things are best experienced only in your imagination. That’s something Anne herself would have appreciated given how much she valued a good imagination.

That is, if Anne were real and not a work of fiction.

But who knows? Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d just tried on the wig…

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