Sometimes life is stranger – and so much neater – than fiction.
I first encountered Anne of Green Gables in school when I lived in Mumbai (then called Bombay) in India. I was in Standard Four – that’s Grade 4 – and the school I went to was Cathedral and John Connon School, an English speaking private school, and one of the best in the city. It was run by the Anglo-Scottish Education Society – yes, a hangover from Colonialism, even though India was then an independent country.
True to the British tradition of private schools, we wore school uniforms. The girls – girls and boys were in separate schools then, merging later – wore light cotton dresses with faint grey and white stripes and a sash denoting the house to which each girl belonged. I wore a red sash, as I was part of Red House.
Our class had the unfortunate reputation – just starting to emerge, only to fully blossom later – of being high spirited and difficult. My teacher that year was a western woman called Mrs. Chaubal. I have no idea if she was Canadian, British, American, or Irish – to us, all foreigners spoke with equally weird accents, because, of course, we kids spoke perfect English, with no accent. Or rather, the right one!
One morning, Mrs. Chaubal gathered us together in front of her desk to read to us. Perhaps she thought this would have a calming effect on our high spirits, or perhaps she just wanted to share a book she loved. It was that morning – squirming against the other girls on a hard floor, with the school room smells of chalk-dust, cleaner and sneakers wafting through the air, stirred by the overhead fan – that I first met Anne.
I was hooked from the start. Mrs. Chaubal read with great enthusiasm and expression, and she was clever enough to skip the long descriptive parts that would make us restless. When the school year ended but the book didn’t, I had to find the book and finish reading it to see what happened next; to see if Anne ever forgave Gilbert.
I was an avid reader – there was no TV back then in India. Reading was a source of escape as well as delight. My idea of a great day was to have a stack of books and no one to bug me so I could happily read myself cross-eyed. I spent most of my pocket money on books which I usually bought at second-hand bookstores – which were often just small, open-front kiosks off busy roads – to stretch my rupees to the max. When I finished them, I’d trade them for others – unless, of course, the books were keepers.
So, I hunted through my usual second hand bookstores for Anne of Green Gables, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I scoured the library as well, to no avail. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered the book in a new bookstore. I’d found it! Of course, it was rather expensive, not being second-hand, but I didn’t hesitate. I bought a copy, devoured it and read it again many times. I was elated to discover sequels; I bought every one that I could lay my hot little hands on, and I read them over and over again.
Perhaps I loved those books because the world Anne lived in – rural, green, peaceful, with a small contained community – was so different from my own sprawling, crowded urban world, full of traffic, people, and a cacophony of sound and colours.
In the way in which internalized worlds become more familiar than the external, Anne’s world soon became as familiar to me as my own. But I didn’t realize at first, that the world in which the books were set was real – that it existed outside the author’s imagination.
I think I made that discovery when studying Canada in school, when the name Prince Edward Island leapt out and settled with a satisfying click against the name I’d glossed over in the books.
When I did realize it, though, it was one of those blinding light-bulb moments. I decided, in a spirit of joy-filled adventure, that I would go there one day.
When I was fourteen, my family moved to England. I didn’t recognize it then, but the Anne books were a constant thread through my life, old friends who helped negotiate the uprooting and settling in periods of that move. When I graduated from University, I decided that I didn’t want to live in England anymore. Canada, for many reasons appealed to me, so I decided to go there – and of course, it had to be to P.E.I.
And in P.E.I. – which felt very much like home, because it was, of course, already familiar – I met the man I married.. I lived there for fourteen years and began my writing career there – making that leap, overcoming the fear of failure that had stalled me from starting sooner. I celebrated my first publication success there, a children’s book published by an Island publisher, and one that went on to become a Canadian best-seller.
Years later, after we’d moved away from the Island, when I heard again my father-in-law’s familiar anecdotes about growing up on a farm on the Island during the Depression, I realized that there was gold in them thar tales. And I knew with the eager fierceness that each new writing project generates when it catches fire in the belly, that I had to write a novel about a boy growing up in P.E.I. It had to be fiction, not biography, because that’s what I write. I felt freer too, creating characters and incidents rather than trying to restrict myself to facts. Besides, I strongly believe that I can tell a greater truth through fiction than through bald facts – it’s telling the truth through lies.
Seeing That Boy Red in print now feels like coming full circle, coming home. I don’t think I ever imagined when I was a child in India, reading Anne for the umpteenth time, that one day I would go to Anne’s world, live there, marry an Islander and, inspired by family stories, write a book about a boy growing up there, set in the era following the Anne books.
It feels even more satisfying that the publishers chose this as one of the shout lines for the book:
First came Anne Shirley – now meet Red MacRae
Here’s a brief blurb about the book:
It’s P.E.I. during the Depression – meet eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae, resourceful, pig-headed, and impulsive, and his large and lively family, as they weather the challenges of farming through a particularly turbulent year. This episodic novel traces the misadventures – some hair-raising, some hilarious – and coming of age of a remarkable young lad, while celebrating the strength and spirit of Canadian families living through the Depression.
For more about this book please see: http://rachnagilmore.ca/novels.html#red
For a sneak peek, check out: http://browseinside.harpercollins.ca/index.aspx?isbn13=9781554684595
Rachna Gilmore is a Governor General’s Award winning author of twenty or so books for children, with multiple honours and awards. When she isn’t writing stories, she’s dreaming up ideas for more. She calls the process of writing plarking, a mixture of play, work and lark. Her most recent middle-grade novels are The Trouble With Dilly and That Boy Red. Rachna Gilmore’s Writerly Plarks – her blog – explores, and offers tips on, the convoluted process of writing fiction.