A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness
Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother has dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.
In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.
Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.
After reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series this year for the very first time, I felt a need to stay immersed in Anne’s world a bit longer, and decided to read this prequel book, written by contemporary author Sarah McCoy and published in 2018. I’m often skeptical when modern authors decide to continue or riff off of a beloved older book or series (I’m thinking about the debacle that was Scarlett, the “sequel” to Gone With the Wind, among others).
Can a modern author pull off the tone and feeling of the original? Does the new story add anything in terms of character development? Does it feel true to the heart of the original story?
In the case of Marilla of Green Gables, the answer is YES to all questions. While not completely perfect, Marilla is a worthy addition to the Green Gables saga, and I enjoyed it start to finish.
As readers of Anne of Green Gables know, Marilla is the aging spinster who, along with her older brother Matthew, adopts an 11-year-old orphan girl (while actually thinking they were bringing home a boy to help with the farm), and completely up-ends their orderly life. Anne Shirley is a wonder, and her bright, inquisitive, imaginative nature brings new life to Marilla and Matthew and changes their world forever.
But what do we really know about Marilla from the Green Gables books? We only see her through Anne’s eyes –an older woman who keeps house while her brother farms, who has never left the family home and never married. She’s a pillar of the community and has many close friends… but we really don’t know much at all about her childhood or adult life prior to Anne’s arrival.
Marilla of Green Gables starts when Marilla is thirteen. Her mother Clara is pregnant, her brother Matthew works the farm with their father Hugh, and their home life is simple but happy. Marilla has a growing friendship with a classmate of Matthew’s, John Blythe, who is a few years older than Marilla. They seem to be on the verge of romance, but when Clara dies during childbirth, everything changes for Marilla.
Having promised her mother to always take care of Hugh and Matthew, Marilla knows that she will never leave Green Gables. As her relationship with John strengthens over the years, she feels torn between her feelings for him and her responsibility toward her family. On top of this, there’s growing political unrest in Canada, and the Cuthberts are on opposite sides of the issue from John. Finally, it’s the political disagreements that drive a wedge between Marilla and John, leading to an estrangement that lingers for many years.
Over the years, Marilla becomes more and more involved in the issue of runaway slaves from America, motivated initially by orphaned children she encounters who were rescued from enslavement but are still pursued by bounty hunters. While on the surface a simple farm woman with an ordinary, house-bound life, Marilla becomes involved in the abolition movement and works to arrange shelter as part of the underground railroad.
There’s something really heartbreaking about a prequel. You know where the players have to end up, having read the original story. So, seeing Marilla and John’s romance blooming over the years was incredibly bittersweet. On the one hand, they’re just so lovely together, and their affection and regard for one another is sincere and pure and heartfelt. At the same time, I know that Marilla never marries, and that John must end up married to someone else, since his son Gilbert is Anne’s love interest and eventual husband in the Anne books. It really felt terrible at times to see Marilla’s happiness with John and see her experiencing all the sweet emotions of a young first love — not knowing how it will go wrong, but knowing all along that they simply can’t end up together.
Author Sarah McCoy does a lovely job of emulating the feel and style of the Anne books, reveling in the natural world of Prince Edward Island, the simple joys of a small community in an earlier time, and the daily routines and habits that build a full life. Marilla’s voice and perspective feels clear and authentic — we’re able to see a young Marilla and see the roots of the woman she’ll become someday.
The only jarring note for me was the emphasis on politics. Politics rarely gets mentioned in the Anne series, and here, the unrest within Canada is a large focus and becomes the driving point for the breakdown of Anne and John’s relationship. It’s not that it’s uninteresting; simply that it doesn’t feel all that well aligned with the tone of the original series.
Still, I found the book as a whole delightful. It felt like a revelation to get to know a young Marilla and understand how she became the stern spinster we meet in Anne of Green Gables. I love the depiction of life in Avonlea, and was moved by Marilla’s devotion to improving the life of those less fortunate, including putting herself at risk in order to protect children fleeing enslavement.
Marilla of Green Gables is a lovely addition to the world of Anne of Green Gables. For those who haven’t read the original series, I’d say start with those books, at the least the first three or so, before reading Marilla. While Marilla of Green Gables could stand on its own, I think the heart and soul would somehow have much less impact without the greater context of the Anne series.
A note on the audiobook: Lovely! The narrator captures Marilla’s sweetness, the gossipy nature of Marilla’s friend Rachel, the compassion of John, and all the flavor of the many other characters in the story. Really a terrific listen.
I highly recommend Marilla of Green Gables for any fans of the Anne series, and really applaud author Sarah McCoy for adding a new and interesting storyline while staying true to the essence of the original books.
Title: Marilla of Green Gables
Author: Sarah McCoy
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 23, 2018
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction