At a writing workshop, I’m asked a question I’ve often been dishonest in answering: “What writer(s) have influenced/influence you the most?” On such questionnaires, I carefully write the canon worthy names. Sometimes T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson make the cut. Or Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, Marilynne Robinson, and W.S. Merwin. But I know my list is lying. I know that no matter how many modern and classic and award winning names I identify and no matter how much each of those writers have and do influence me on a near daily basis, I’m never really telling all the truth unless I include her.
Unless I talk about L.M. Montgomery.
If I’m being the kind of honest that disdains pretention and doesn’t care what the list “should” say, I would talk about being 12 years old and saving to own every single book Montgomery ever wrote, even the out of print ones. I would tell how at recess or hiding in the quiet of my closet, I filled notebook after notebook with stories and poems in attempts to emulate her style, to make the kind of stories I wished she were still alive to write. If I’m really telling the whole truth, I would talk about just how much I longed to be part of the stories she told because her work was a creation so splendidly rendered that I wanted to touch it all with my own hands or at the very least, use those hands to reach out toward it all with my own words and stories.
Most famous for her writing the Anne of Anne of Green Gables, the endearingly stubborn red-haired orphan with an unrivaled imagination and penchant for seeing beyond the bleakness of her circumstances, Montgomery saw over twenty novels into publication during the turn of the 20th century, an era not well-known for “taking seriously” its few successful female writers. And while I find, particularly as a woman, her publication record deeply impressive, I fell in love with Montgomery’s voice long before I quite realized there was anything incredibly meaningful about her lonely position as a successful woman author in the early 1900s.
It was Rachel Lynde and the brook that babbled into submission as it passed her home that did it:
It was reputed to be a headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade. But by the time it reach Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door….
And the first taste of November concentrated into words:
It was November--the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines. Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park and, as she said, let that great sweeping wind blow the fogs out of her soul.
Of course, there were so many discoveries. So many perfectly chosen words and in those words, so much knowing and feeling known. Most of all, L.M. Montgomery’s books worked like a place that after years of visiting, begins to feel, to become, something like a home.
About ten years ago, I lost my childhood home. It still exists, but for hard as well as necessary reasons, my family packed up and left it behind. They said goodbye to the rye grass pastures and the wrap around porch my grandfather built; they left it all the way you leave someone you will always love and always regret leaving. They moved on to a new town and began all over again. And when, states away, I traveled home for holidays and visits, I felt I never really came “home.”
A few weeks ago, on a work errand that sent me hours south of my own home, I found myself on the road that bent past the old house and land. And so hungry for home, I nearly stopped on the side of the road to scoop up a fistful of dirt I was considering placing in my empty Sonic cup until I could get back and rehome the soil in a mason jar I would tell no one about.
I didn’t stop, though. I drove on, and before bed that night, I rifled through my shelves looking for something to help the ache. And I found Montgomery and Anne and her journey towards home, ironically, comforting me in the loss of mine.
It’s important to pay homage to the often unsung writers who grabbed hold of us in the really formative years, the years where the concrete of bones and brains were just beginning to set, and one good sentence pressed in the soft plaster would leave its mark forever. There is something comforting about how a book, or a perfectly loved authorial voice, can work like a placeholder in our lives and offer us the stability necessary to venture into the darker and complex stories, the new towns and jobs, even the tragedies and gray endings that spill forth from the great literary canons and life experiences we learn to embrace or tolerate later on. Those first guides don’t cease to be important as we move into more complicated stories and lives. If anything, the first books become even more essential.
There are books that can take us home; there are places inside the lines that somehow make a home for us to come back to. Montgomery’s works, so important to the child I was, are also just as meaningful to the adult I am, bookmarking a sense of home for me and cutting a path toward the other writers and the other homes I would and will know.