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The Story Girl and Anne: or why we need more quiet books

The Story Girl by LM Montgomery1 The Story Girl and Anne: or why we need more quiet booksThe Golden Road by LM Montgomery The Story Girl and Anne: or why we need more quiet books

Last year I happened across the Anne of Green Gables books in audiobook format. These were books that Id pooh-poohed as a child purely because of their scratchy old covers and nondescript titles, and my eventual decision to read them was made with a sort of grim determination, much as how I might have approached an end-of-year examination or a vaccination. The end result might be worth it, but only time would tell.

But from the very first moment I became acquainted with Anne I fell quite in love. My husband wondered what had become of me as I excused myself for lengthy walks so that I might see what happened next to this dreamy, spunky girl and the magnificent island she called home. Anne accompanied me until the battery on my phone or my iPod wore down, and my husband found the whole thing quite the ordeal: he was in charge of the foot massages at the end of each of those walks.

Needless to say, he was quite bewildered by the whole thing. He asked me what the books were about, and why it was that I was so enraptured by them.

This was a surprisingly difficult question. With books like Anne of Green Gables, its impossible to put together some sort of pithy elevator pitch: its Heidi meets Brave, but without all the stuff that happens. Or to reel off a quick plot synopsis: its about a red-headed orphan who, well, grows up.

These stories are so utterly divorced from the high-stakes, high-concept books that bristle from our shelves today, their moody emo covers suggesting that the typical contemporary teenage experience involves overthrowing an oppressive government alongside a vampire boyfriend, and all while wearing a formal (and designer) gown.

Anne might have wanted a dress with puffed sleeves, but her idea of saving the world involved donating a foreign aid charity or striving for a place at university. Questionable fashion choices aside, these aspirations feel a good deal more familiar to me.

This past week Ive been reading The Story Girl and The Golden Road, again by L M Montgomery, author of the Anne books, and which unfold in a similar vein. After these I began Susan Coolidges What Katy Did, which has echoes of Montgomery, but is sadly not quite as endearing. After this I plan to seek out I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. These books all have something in common: theyre quiet. Theyre charming and lovely. And theyre relatable.

In my recent post about Pride and Prejudice I discussed what it means to be an introvert in both the literary world and the real world, and about how stressful boisterous social situations can be for a shy person. The same, I think, is true when it comes to books. Stuttering prose and machine-gun dialogue disconcerts me; the frenetic mess of action scenes alienates me; likewise I am intimidated by aggressiveness and gung-ho attitudes. I wonder how much this applies to the ordinary reader, as opposed to the non-readers that publishers seem to be trying ever harder to target.

When I travel I like to take my time, spending hours sitting on a corner watching people go by, whiling away my days in museums and galleries, strolling along lane-ways in search of a moment of beauty that is mine and mine alone. These are the same things that I look for in books: although a beautifully wrought plot can be a thing of delight, plot and story are not the same thing. Much as I would rather spend time getting to know a place through my own lazy wanderings rather than at the time-poor behest of a frazzled tour guide, I would rather make my own way through a story instead of being dragged along by the raging machinations of a plot.

And so, finding very little on the shelves today that appeals to me, Ive been travelling back in time to an era where it was all right to become caught up in a world that is not so different from our own experiences. I have been thirsting so desperately for something that will dilute the emotional dehydration of all of these plot-heavy, take-you-by-the-arm books; a palate cleanser that might halt my quickly derailing literary explorations.

The Story Girl and The Golden Road are, like the Anne books, books in which nothing much happens, but by the end of which everything seems to have changed. Both are episodic in nature, detailing the mundane, innocent misadventures of a group of children as they tread that treacherous experiential quicksand of adolescence, where childhood is a mere step backwards, and adulthood is a mere step in the other direction.

The stories themselves are so mild-mannered that I can only dream of what a present-day editors reaction to them might to be. In one, the children decide to each write down their dreams to see who has the best and most vivid dreams. The human desire for competition takes over, and soon they are eating cucumbers and milk before bed in order to precipitate the most colourful of imaginings. Its not quite The Hunger Games, although it does involve an upset stomach.

In another, the children learn that one of the boys in town owns a book containing an illustration of God. Having of course never seen God, the children are tormented by the what-ifs of this scenario, and pool together their money in order to purchase the illustration. God, they learn, apparently has quite the angry visage. This may seem like an utter non-event to the various YA heroes of today playing Christ figure roles or battling against god-like despots, but it is a life-changing moment for the children. Although an adult tells them that no one knows what God looks like, that the illustration is merely someones own imagining of God, this image will forever be a part of their memories.

These are books of what it means to be on that tightrope of adolescence, wavering this way and that, feeling in a sort of developmental purgatory. The narrative simplicity of these stories is what affords them such depth and complexity: the reader is given the emotional space in which to question Felicitys blunt statements about proper comportment or the Story Girls deadpan epigrams regarding adulthood. These are stories that in their quietness draw the reader in as another character and ask for participation. Rather than having our emotions forced and our interpretations made for us by the winnowing force of a sledge-hammer plot were asked to make up our own minds about these things, to read between those lines of pitch black and stark white in order to find the multitudinous greys.

Im a tango dancer. Tango nights generally play out in a series of tandas: a group of songs in either tango, milonga or vals style, separated by a brief break. Although the milonga tandas have everyone sprinting about the floor in gymnastic style, an entire night of milonga music would be both headache- and bunion-inducing. The slower tango songs are there for a reason. Theyre beautiful and theyre expressive, and they provide musical contrast. The same is true not just for the tandas, but for the songs themselves, which alternate between fast and slow, and are famous for their complexity. Traditional tango, however, is making way for something known as neo-tango, a sort of techno-infused form of tango music. Its a style that some dancers find fascinating for a little while, but almost without fail everyone returns to the traditional music for the interpretative complexity and emotional resonance it allows. Ive never cried listening to a neo-tango song.

Writers are told not to write down to young adult readers, but I cant help but feel that this is constantly happening today'it simply doesnt take the form that we might imagine it to. By giving readers books that are all about taking down the state or fighting werewolves were implying that its only these problems that are of any value, that the everyday teenage experience is otherwise something that should be easily navigable. I cant think of any worse way than putting down a reader than by suggesting that their lives do not merit reading about.

In addition, by excising all of the quiet space that exists in these classic books in order to make room, make room! for more attention-grabbing plot, were denying readers the thinking room to be able to truly experience all of the wonders of reading. Were assuming that they want their reading experience to be as little like a reading experience as possible, and the result is books with narratives that stream by like tickertape. I cant help but wonder whether theyll be forgettable, these books that disallow readers the space that we need to reflect on a story, to engage with it, and to draw our own conclusions.

Not all readers read to escape, nor do they necessarily read in order to live vicariously as action heroes. Sometimes readers read to identify, to make a friend wholl remain with them forever, and to be charmed. Sometimes they want to be able to read a book that gives them the space that they need to think about the questions posed by the book, and to answer them themselves.

Surprisingly often, too, its the quiet books that are the ones that change lives.

Your turn: Do you like quiet books? Has a quiet book ever changed your life?


  1. Have you read Blue Castle? It is one of my favourite Montgomeries.

    • Stephanie /

      Not yet, but believe me when I say that I will! :)

    • I LOVE The Blue Castle! I have already decided to name my imaginary daughter Valancy, after the heroine of this book, because I think she is so great. Valancy is definitely my favourite of L. M. Montgomerys heroines, followed by Jane (from Jane of Lantern Hill) and Emily (from the Emily trilogy, Emily of New Moon, etc).

      Steph, I have a whole shelf of L. M. Montgomery books, let me know if you want to borrow any!

      • Stephanie /

        Oh, careful, JessJono just read that and loves the name. He might get in before you and steal your name!

        Id love to borrow your copies of the Jane and Emily books if you dont mind. :)

  2. Another great post, Stephanie. I read every LM Montgomery book I could get when I was twelve or so, and re-read them over and over again. It was Emily that made me want to be a writer made it seem a reasonable thing to want to do. It took a few decades, but I got there in the end. A few years ago I re-read all of the Anne books in order (I have every one of them, collected over 30 years) and it was a great joy to reacquaint myself with the Avonlea/Glen St Mary crew. As I said in a recent twitter post Rilla of Ingleside was always my favourite, but I love the Blue Castle, too. (Dont read the Colleen McCullough reinterpretation of the Blue Castle, the Ladies of Missalonghi its a pallid thing next to the original, notwithstanding the swearing and sex scenes that McCulloch introduced.)

    • Stephanie /

      Its amazing how much these books have resonated with so many people. I havent yet met anyone who has disliked them!

      I only happened upon them last year, but like you they were the books that got me back into writing at long last. I loved feeling so at home in a book, and as though I were off visiting friends. Perhaps a touch too romantic of me, but why not? :)

  3. Although Miss Reads Fairacre books are from an older point of view, they also are quiet & charming.

    Also, Angela Thirkells WWII era England books.

    Alas, both are British and not set in our fair Canada.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks so much for the recommendations, Debbie! I hadnt heard of these before, but will certainly have a look. :)

  4. I cant tell you how many times I read the Anne books growing up and how much I loved them. Its funny because my sister and I were just talking about these yesterday. We were watching the fundraiser on PBS and I was lamenting the fact that they werent showing Anne of Green Gables. My younger sister confessed that she thought for the longest time she thought I was in love with a boy at school named Gilbert. :) These books always will hold a special place in my heart and I hope that one day Im able to pass that love on to other girls.

    Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? It reminded me a lot of the Anne book. And I loved I Capture the Castle.

    • Stephanie /

      Ah, Gilbert. Hes a far better sort than the Edward Cullens of today, isnt he! My little sister is almost old enough to read these books, and Im looking forward to passing them on to her, along with a few of my other favourites (The Secret Garden, The Little Prince and so on).

      Ive heard of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and though I havent read it, Ive heard quite a bit about it! As an Aussie Ive missed out on quite a lot of the American classics, but am doing my best to catch up. :)

  5. I really need to re-read these quiet books. I agree with you that as a participant rather than an observer the reader of these books has a higher emotional connection to the everyday stories and trials. I also read a lot of Gene Stratton-Porter which I would consider quiet stories, though perhaps a little more adult with more excitement than cucumber induced stomach aches (I always wanted to test that theory, never quite believing it, but I was too afraid of actually becoming ill). Freckles was by far my favorite of her books. I have a copy that is literally falling apart on my shelf.

    • Stephanie /

      I definitely agree that the emotional connection is what makes these books resonate so much with readers, and suspect that thats whats missing with a lot of contemporary fiction. I hadnt heard of Gene Stratton-Porter before, but Ive just done a quick google, and she sounds amazing. Ill download some of her work from Librivox when I get a chance. :)

      • The stories are quiet interesting, and her views on naturalism bleed through which I found intriguing while I read the stories. She also has an idealism of womanhood and manhood that is rather unrealistic, but makes for feel good people.

  6. Wonderful post, just lovely. Anne has always been my favourite and my best. For all these reasons and probably more. I love a quiet book and I love a story in which, like you mentioned above, not a lot really happens but at the end everything has changed. Feels like life somehow. Studies in the little things.

    • I ended up writing a little post inspired by yours. Thanks for the inspiration. (Am also reading Anne!)

      • Stephanie /

        I completely agree with your point about life being in the little things, Kate! What a great way of putting it.

        Im glad to hear that this post inspired you to write up your own reflections. Ill stop by shortly for a read. :)

  7. I agree with you Stephanie on this issue. The high-concept books of today have story development akin to fast food. Quiet time, quiet space, room to breathe and absorb is being eaten up by the internet/social media/technology rewiring our sense of timing in many aspects of our lives. I enjoy the rhythm of reading good prose and revisiting old books because it is an antidote to increasingly shrill and frenetic tones inhabiting our reading time.

    • Stephanie /

      Excellent points, Heather, and ones that I didnt even think to bring up in this post. I recently attended an event about truth in writing, and that was exactly one of the key issues that was brought up: people today seem to be desperately trying to cut through the trappings of everyday life in order to get to whats real. I may have to write a blog post on that as well! Thanks so much for the inspiration. :)

  8. I used to watch that show on TV. . .Avonlea, I think it was??? But I havent taken the time to read the Anne books! I must (especially since my middle name is Anne with an E)! I have a few, and I think youre reminding me I need to just sit down and read them!

    • Stephanie /

      I havent seen the show, but I might see if I can track it down. The books are just lovely, and I do hope you get the time to read them. :)

  9. Your post makes me think of the new (non-fiction) book Quiet.

    Its about the virtues of quiet people.

    • Stephanie /

      Thats the second time this week that someones recommended Quiet to me! I really must check it out. :)

  10. I Capture the Castle is my favorite book of all time!

    • Stephanie /

      Ooh, do you have a copy I can borrow next time were at dinner?

  11. Im a 26 year old father of 2 little girls. My oldest, Annabelle (named partially after Anne Shirley) is 2 1/2. I read her at least a chapter of the Anne series a night (we are currently on book #5) Although, she doesnt understand all of it, she loves it, and asks for Green Ables.

    I believe Anne is a much better role model than most of these other new-fangled female characters. I hope my girls grow up loving it as much as I did (which is weird for a guy to say so).

    I think the slow moving books, as you called them, have more feeling, lessons, and heart

    Great post.

    • Stephanie /

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Ryan. Im so glad to hear that your daughter loves the Anne of Green Gables books. Anne is a lovely role model, I think: shes kind and generous, but smart and driven as well. :)

  12. Lovely post. You had me at the title and you took away my breath with that last line.

    Sent this way by the lovely Caroline Starr Rose, and am happy I came. Even if now I want to reread all those Anne and Emily books, and my pile of to be read books is huge.

    • Stephanie /

      Thank you for your lovely words, Jeannine. I adored the Anne books, and though Ive not yet read the Emily books, I plan to over the next few months. :)

  13. I cant say much more except: Yes. Yes. And Yes. This post really spoke to me. Thank you for writing it.

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Melissa! Im glad it resonated with you. :)

  14. This is excellent. I completely agree, especially with your tango analogy. We need book diversity and I do miss the old days, too, when you could write about secret clubs and falling off roof gutters. Those books are timeless!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Amy! Im going to do my best to find some contemporary books that fall into this genre, so stay tuned!

  15. What a fabulous post! I agree that the YA realm too often tends to dumb down its books, either in language/writing quality or in theme. Montgomerys books are always slow to get into, but pay off in the end. The main idea for most YA books lately is to hook em in fast because teens dont have an attention span. Exceptions to that are Melina Marchettas books as well as Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

    The Golden Road is definitely my favorite between it and the Story Girl. Ive read it multiple times. Did you ever watch the old TV show Avonlea? It was a Canadian production that aired on the Disney Channel in the US.