Stories on the edge of familiarity

How Very Smee Your Cat is!

As noted in my last post, my website software has issues with italics in the midst of non-italics. All book titles will be, unfortunately, put in quotation marks.

I first discovered L.M. Montgomery through CBC’s adaptation of “Anne of Green Gables”, where Megan Follows did a wonderful job of portraying Anne. Many years later, I read the book for the first time and enjoyed it even more than the mini-series.

When I found out it was the first in a series, I went a little overboard and tried to read the whole thing at once. It’s a long series and, wonderful as she is, one can have too much Anne in a week. I got as far as half-way through “Rilla of Ingleside”. Sometime I will finish it, but I will have to be more strategic in how I read that whole series from the beginning again, because I don’t remember some of the books very well. Although, you have to admit, eight and a half books in a row before glut is a testament to L.M. Montgomery’s writing skill. The (chronologically) first prequel trilogy to “Dune” got there after one and a half books for me.

But, for those of you who have read the Anne books and have no idea what on earth the title refers to, allow me to turn to L.M. Montgomery’s less famous trilogy called “Emily of New Moon”. It is my most favourite trilogy of all time (so is the original “Dune” trilogy, but these two trilogies are mutually exclusive, so I feel fine in giving them the same standing). What endeared me more to the Emily books than to the Anne books was that I identified much more with Emily. She was a writer, and very serious about her work, like me. Anne was an extravert, whereas Emily was an introvert, like me. Her wonderfully complex and imperfect family consisted of individuals that could practically leap off the page, and she reacted to them in ways similar to how I would to people like them. From these books about one of my favourite characters, I learned several things about writing:

1) Characterization can be enhanced by familial similarities. All through the trilogy, references are made to characteristics that are common in certain families, whether faults or virtues. The Murrays have an impressive list of them, being that they are Emily’s closest relatives. But, as much as these traits are applied to groups in general, each individual within the groups manages to be unique. Emily, for example, shares some Murray traits, but also some Starr traits (her father’s side of the family) as well as some traits that are unique to her, which come out very clearly when contrasted with her Murray relatives.

2) Creativity is beautiful. Though we never get to directly read the many poems and stories Emily writes over the course of the trilogy, we do hear her thoughts, peek in on some of her journal entries, and get to know some of her favourite fantasies. From Emily-in-the-glass to the Wind Woman, she infuses bits of her daily life with imaginings and wonder. Even though life happens, and sometimes happens hard, she always manages to return to the things that matter most deeply to her.

3) Writing is hard work, emotionally. Emily is much more diligent than I am about writing. But she still encountered major disappointments, like most of her family wanting her to stop writing because they thought it was silly. Or a close and trusted friend telling her that her story was horrible when it really was wonderful all because he was jealous. Thankfully, she mostly just laughed at the reviews on her first book, what with one reviewer praising a character and another deploring the very same one. But she did have to deal with people being angry at her for making a character too similar to a relative, even though she had never intended so.

4) Real life always happens. Something that L.M. Montgomery had such a good handle on was that her characters lived in a world where actions produced consequences, everyone makes mistakes and sometimes bad things happen out of the blue and people have to deal with it. She grounded her stories in this, giving a sense that you could just walk into the world of the book and not be in the least surprised that the characters really exist. Horrible things happen, but so do embarrassing things, funny things and wonderful things. And they all happen as a result of the characters doing and saying and being the way they are. And changing. Not all the characters change, but some do, so believably and wonderfully that you can’t help but cheer for them as they go through life.

5) The most interesting things in life are, as said in one of the books: “births, deaths, marriages, and scandals”. When something begins or ends (or both), or when something out of the ordinary happens, people are interested. The murder of a king is a death and a scandal. Finding his illegitimate heir on some random farm in the middle of nowhere is a scandal. This same heir defeating the king’s murderer is a death and, if the heir began the story rather ignorant, a scandal. The heir becoming king and marrying the woman of his dreams is, obviously, a marriage. In other words, the basic format for epic fantasy consists of things that interest people– the basic, cliched format for any genre consists of things that interest people. It’s why people keep writing and reading them. The challenge for the writer is to use interesting things and make them into a work of art.

6) Sometimes, you just have to make up your own word and leave it at that. Emily had a cat named Mike II (named after one of her first cats that she had to give away), and he had a certain air about him, a certain way he acted and looked that she could only describe as smee. Thanks to the latest episode of Doctor Who, I know that the smell of dust after rain is called petrichor. But what do you call the look of dirty concrete? What is the name for the wood shavings that lie on the floor? What do you call the feel or the sound of scratching a hard surface? Much as English has a ridiculous amount of highly specified words (when does one refer to the purlicue, the space between your thumb and extended index finger, anyway?), there are times where each of us feels like we really do need to add just one more. If we do, it’s not that big of a deal. So long as everyone understands what we’re talking about, there’s no need to worry.

All in all, my favourite things about L.M. Montgomery’s books are her characters, and I think that should be the case with every book I come across.

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