Friday, February 11, 2011

Emily Climbs by L. M. Montgomery

Emily Climbs (Emily Novels)I probably would have called this book "Emily's School Days" if I had written it, but that just shows my lack of imagination, which of course precludes that I could even begin to write like L. M. Montgomery. Well, anyway. . . most of this books deals with Emily's three years of high school in the nearby town of Shrewsbury, three years in which she matures both as a young woman and a writer.

Emily is thrilled when Aunt Elizabeth finally concedes to let her continue her education, even if it does come with the stipulation that she not write any stories, but only what is true. If restraining her imagination, or at least the recording of her imaginative stories, seems difficult, it is only the beginning of the trials that await Emily. Instead of boarding with her friend Ilse, Emily must stay with Aunt Ruth, a straight-laced widow who is even more suspicious and aloof than Aunt Elizabeth had been. She repeatedly accuses Emily of being sly and deep and misunderstands even the most innocent of motives and mishaps. It is an unsympathetic environment, to say the least. Emily's friendship with Ilse encounters some bumps as she deals with the petty jealousies and mean tricks of other students. The "Murray pride" proves to be both a blessing and a curse, on the one hand helping her to rise above schoolgirl pranks, but on the other prolonging misunderstandings and giving Emily a sense of isolation.

Montgomery switches back and forth between a third-person narrative and first person accounts from Emily's journal, which gives the story a predominantly one-sided perspective. However, I wasn't annoyed by a first-person narrative as is so often the case, because Emily (or Montgomery, really) is such a storyteller that even her personal recollections do not descend into self-absorption. The only drawback that I noticed is that some characters were left largely undeveloped. Though Teddy was such an important part of her childhood, there is really only one scene were he figures prominently, very prominently, in this volume, and then he simply seems to fade into the background of Emily's scholastic and literary pursuits and a larger social scene. In keeping with the title, the prominent theme is that Emily Climbs the ladder of success as her passion for writing becomes recognized by others - first her teachers, then the community, and finally by editors and publishers.

As in Emily of New Moon (though I didn't mention these elements in my review) Montgomery gives us a mixed bag of faith, religion, and spirituality. Emily's delight in nature, which hints at a wonder in the world God created, is contrasted with the rigid piety of her relatives, which only results in severity in their own lives and for those with whom they interact. At thirteen, Emily explains these differences with the idea that people each have their own "Gods" as they see fit. "Everybody has a different God, I think. Aunt Ruth's, for instance, is one that punishes her enemies—sends 'judgments' on them. That seems to me to be about all the use He really is to her. Jim Cosgrain uses his to swear by. But Aunt Janey Milburn walks in the light of her God's countenance, every day, and shines with it" (13). Emily's God is one of the dew-laden sunrise as well as the violent storms, and her infectious delight in nature seem to indicate that Montgomery must have favored this view over stuffy high-church ideals, though she was a minister's wife herself. Going even one step further from orthodoxy, there is an element of mystery, bordering on spiritism, in each of the Emily books when Emily has an inexplicable vision that brings unknown things to light. Spiritism was nothing new in the early 20th century, so perhaps Montgomery included it just for the element of local color. At any rate, she doesn't dwell on it or belabor the point, and even Emily herself is uncomfortable with her "second-sight."

I have enjoyed all the Emily books, but I think this is my least favorite one, simply because teenage woes are often over-dramatized, and I'm, shall we say, over that at this stage of life. I really enjoyed Emily's thoughts on writing, however, and how her perspective is broadened by curbing her imagination and writing "just the facts, ma'am." Emily certainly does mature and learn much about herself in the three years of this story, but she also seems to come into her own in the inheritance of Murray traditions, some of which are quaint and resourceful and others - like the Murray pride - that are not always such admirable qualities. She makes a wise choice at the end, but she is still posed on the precipice of what she will become. So stay tuned for my thoughts on Emily's Quest in a few days.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Awesome review! I loved hearing your thoughts on this one. Makes me actually want to go and pick up the Emily books again immediately - to refresh my memory!