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.”

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.

Anne of Green Gables
JAPANESE FANS OF ANNE in the reconstructed village of Avonlea

Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, is long and vaguely shark-shaped. Tourist brochures divide it into four zones; the part around Cavendish is designated “Anne’s Land.” The de facto capital of Anne’s Land is a farmhouse where some of Montgomery’s relations lived; I decided to start my tour there. Montgomery visited the house often and used it as inspiration for Green Gables, although she took great license in her depiction—Anne was not the only one prone to fanciful departures. Contemporary photos show a nondescript, unkempt home, not a “big, rambling, orchard-embowered house” with a dooryard neat enough to eat off. Montgomery liked to cite a local saying about the house: “If you wanted to see what the world looked like on the morning after the flood you should go into [the] barnyard on a rainy day!”

Anne and its several sequels were an instant sensation with readers of all ages—the Harry Potter books of the Edwardian era—and fans began streaming into Cavendish almost as soon as the first book was published. In the 1930s, the Canadian park service acquired the farm and incorporated it into a new national park. The land around the house became a golf course, and the house was fixed up to square with the descriptions in the novel, right up to the crisply painted gables. Inside, it’s bright and orderly—not at all like I’d envisioned from the novel, where it seemed full of the rough chaff of everyday farm life, with plenty of dark corners to nurture the imagination. It was as if a photo stylist had arranged everything neatly for an Architectural Digest shoot, circa 1890. I had a hard time visualizing Anne, or anyone for that matter, actually living here.

About half a mile down the road is a relatively new attraction called Avonlea (the fictional name Montgomery gave to Cavendish), which strives to re-create village life as portrayed in the novels. Like many reconstructed villages, it seemed a little too radiant, and was slightly off-kilter. For instance, a “farmhand” in overalls and a straw hat passed by on a unicycle, wanting to know whether I was going to the sack races. Also, a busload’s worth of Japanese visitors were wandering excitedly up and down the lanes.

Anne has been hugely popular in Japan since it was first translated there, in 1952; the story of an outcast rising above adversity through pluck evidently resonated with postwar Japanese, who may have seen parallels to their own situation. (Japanese fans are also fascinated by her hair: the book’s title in Japan is Akage No Anne, or “Anne of the Red Hair.”) Each year, several thousand Japanese visit the island in homage to Anne. In an essay published earlier this year in The Guardian, the novelist Margaret Atwood described asking an audience in Japan about the book’s enduring appeal. She got 32 responses, ranging from the shared love of cherry and apple blossoms to Anne’s ability to stand up to “that most formidable of Japanese dragons, the bossy older matron.”

In Avonlea, I talked to a “village resident” in a minister’s collar, who told me he was also a minister in real life and had officiated at more than 500 weddings of Japanese couples, mostly at the Anne of Green Gables Museum. This is the farm where Montgomery herself was married, and the couples go to great lengths to duplicate her ceremony, right down to the wedding cake, which is made from the same recipe. I later chatted with two college students visiting from Japan, who were sitting in a sleigh, wearing smocks over their dresses and straw hats with pre-attached red braids—headgear as easily obtained in Cavendish as Mickey Mouse hats are in Disneyland. “This has always been my dream,” one said.

All this was weirdly compelling—and explains the host of island signs and brochures in Japanese—but I began to feel as if I were falling from one Escher print into another. So I went back to the main crossroads of Cavendish, paid $4, and walked the short distance to the farm where Montgomery was raised, and where she wrote Anne. All that remains is a roped-off cellar hole, kept trim and clean as a loaf pan. I sat on a bench at the edge of the erstwhile dooryard and listened to warblers. Corduroyed fields of grain were visible to the south, looking much as they must have when Montgomery walked them each day before sitting down to write. Here, I started to feel a little more scope for the imagination.

Later that afternoon I rented a bike and went to Cavendish Grove, a park with biking and walking trails that connect to the national park and its woods of black-barked spruces draped with pale, beardlike mosses. I pedaled beneath tall trees down a deserted red-dirt road, eventually emerging at a marsh where statue­like herons stabbed at fish. A large fox trotted regally down the road ahead of me like a character from a fable, then veered off into the undergrowth. At the end of the road, I stashed the bike in the marram grass and followed a trail over the dunes to a beach lapped by quiet surf. The sand was pink and scattered with rust-colored boulders.

I found a rock the size of an ottoman and sat down. Looking out on the ocean, I recalled what Anne saw when she surveyed the same vista: “All silver and shadow and vision of things not seen.”

Anne’s Prince Edward Island is still here, I was pleased to discover. It just takes a bit of imagination to find it.