Back in February, I read The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery. That extra-Anne experience was so much fun that I asked readers which stand-alone Montgomery novel I should take on when I next had time, and the consensus was that Jane of Lantern Hill, one of her young adult offerings, would be sure to please. Well, you weren’t wrong, people. I read this on my e-reader during my recent trip to Canada (I thought it was fitting), and enjoyed every moment.
The story is gentle, not unpredictable, but totally satisfying. Young Jane’s parents are divorced, and she lives with her spineless mother and nasty, oppressive grandmother in Toronto. One day, her father writes: he wants Jane for the summer, in Prince Edward Island. Jane travels there in fear and loathing — she has no memory of her father, who will surely be a brute — but when she arrives, she finds herself utterly at home, with the place, the people, the customs, and most of all her father himself. Her time there establishes her in her own skin, as a cook, a home-maker, a girl of courage and insight. Jane is changed forever, and begins to understand some of the things that drove her parents apart, despite their love for each other.
One thing I found particularly interesting here was that Jane is frequently accused by her grandmother of having low tastes. This manifests itself in her wanting to cook, for instance, or make friends with a little servant girl next door, and you can perhaps understand a very starchy and rather conceited grandmother feeling that a proper young lady wouldn’t want to do those things. However, Jane recites some “habitant” poetry at one point, referring to the poetry of the early French settlers of Canada, and this, too, was anathema. I found this interesting, as poetry per se shouldn’t be vulgar, and Jane’s recital was good, but the grandmother sneers at it as “patois,” revealing, perhaps, a more general anti-French bias. I can’t run the actual poem to ground (“The Little Baby of Mathieu”) and perhaps it doesn’t exist, but the more general point stands. Did you know that the Canadiens hockey team is still nicknamed “the Habs” for the Habitants?
The ending of the book is contrived and even a little silly. Two characters, whose fate I would have liked to see made explicit, drop out of sight; two others are forced together in what I suppose was a romantically inevitable way (but I think in real life it wouldn’t have worked.) But the heart of the book isn’t there. The heart of the book is Jane, finally learning who she is, learning the skills she needs to give love to others in a concrete way, as she has always wanted to do. She creates a home, something which is at the center of every book I’ve read by Montgomery. The house and garden and view are important — beauty is crucial to Montgomery — but it’s the living heart inside that animates the place and makes it magic.