Travels October 2008

Land of Green Gables

Prince Edward Island has stunning beaches, expansive vistas—and the bizarre, fascinating mix of fact and fiction known as “Anne’s Land.”
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Anne of Green Gables
THE HOUSE THAT HELPED INSPIRE the 1908 classic Anne of Green Gables

Prince Edward Island presents a difficult proposition for the guidebook writer. Fact-gathering trips usually involve racing from one spot to the next, scribbling notes on the fly. Yet on several forays here in the 1990s, I learned that the island resists this, instead inducing a slow-motion, vaguely narcotic mood. On the remote North Cape, I’d spend hours lying in the grass, watching the great spinning blades at the experimental wind farm, which had the feel of an art installation by Brancusi had he taken up mesmerism. Or I would find myself doubling back to the Prince Edward Island Preserve Company after coming to the realization over breakfast that I did have room in the car for a few more jars of lemon-ginger marmalade. Chain motels are starting to make inroads here, but the island is still largely the domain of old-fashioned cottage courts, many of them set in its startlingly red potato fields and with views of the ocean in the distance, and these virtually insist on a less frenetic style of vacationing—I’d walk out on my tiny porch in the morning and say hello to my neighbors on their tiny porch, and two cups of coffee later it was noon. Even the slogan of the local newspaper—“Covers Prince Edward Island like the dew”—was something from down the rabbit hole.

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Slideshow: "Anne's Land"



Wayne Curtis narrates images from his visits to the fictional home of Anne of Green Gables and the real-life home of the woman who created her. "The Travel Advisory"
What to do, where to stay, and where to eat on Prince Edward Island

Then there was the area around Cavendish, on the island’s north shore. This was the heart of what I’d come to think of as the Anne Industrial Complex—a hodgepodge of restored farms and museums and gift shops and amusement parks devoted to Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne Shirley, the author and heroine, respectively, of the 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables. Places where fact and fiction share a single habitat have always fascinated me because of the complicated cultural ecosystems they create—think of Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri, or Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon. The place influenced the author, and the author influenced the place, so you end up exploring a sort of M. C. Escher print. In this way, I’d find myself wandering confusedly around Cavendish, trying to coax apart fact and fiction, until the bugle call of my guidebook deadline summoned me away. (On to Newfoundland!)

This spring, prompted by a newspaper article about Anne’s centennial, I reread the book. I’d forgotten how good it is—rich and layered, with hints of Lemony Snicketish schadenfreude and a generous dollop of Jane Austen–style swipes at small-town pettiness. Anne is a redheaded orphan given to great flights of fancy, who is dispatched from a Nova Scotia orphanage to the island farm of the aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. (The Cuthberts had requested an orphan boy to help with chores; they evidently lived in a time when getting farmhands was as easy as ordering things over the Internet, although with similarly poor customer service.) The rest of the book involves her getting into scrapes but rising above them, often by dint of her outsized personality.

The other main character is the landscape itself. The island, Anne said more than once, allowed “scope for the imagination,” which the orphan asylum assuredly did not. Most of the descriptive passages are rendered through Anne’s eyes, and she was enchanted by everything—from a farm lane overarched with apple blossoms, at the end of which a “painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle,” to the red sandstone cliffs along the shore, where “scrub firs, their spirits quite unbroken by long years of tussle with the gulf winds, grew thickly.”

Could that land of the imagination still be found? I made my reservations and returned to Cavendish in June.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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