The Story Girl by Lucy Maud Montgomery
originally published 1911
Bantam Classic, 1st printing, 1989
Genre: Children’s literature, juvenalia
Synopsis & Review: While their father works in Rio de Janeiro for a time, Bev and Felix King must leave their home in Toronto to stay with relatives on their father’s family homestead near Carlisle on Prince Edward Island. Thrilled to see the place from when the King family sprang, and to play where their father grew up, Bev and Felix are somewhat apprehensive about their cousins. At the homestead live Uncle Alec and Aunt Jante, and their children: Dan the eldest at thirteen, the lovely Felicity, and the shy but sweet Cecily. On an adjoining farm live the siblings Aunt Olivia and Uncle Roger, who are caring for Sara Stanley, another King cousin. With all those cousins–and Uncle Roger’s hired boy Peter and the neighbor Sara Ray–there will be plenty of other children to play with.
Sara Stanley is called The Story Girl for her knack with telling all kinds of stories, and making them live with her remarkable voice. She is the eldest at fourteen, and almost a de facto leader and voice of reason for the group–though she is hardly perfect. With their cousins, Bev and Felix fall under her spell, and hear the stories of their family and others in Carlisle. Together, the group gets up to all kinds of monkeyshines: confronting a witch, preparing for the End of Days, braving fearsome old men, and keeping dream diaries, among others.
There are Anne girls and Emily girls, perhaps Jane or Valancy girls—no one is a Pat girl—but I’m a Sara girl. Sara Stanley, that is, the titular Story Girl of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s fourth novel. It’s the second novel not featuring Anne, and also the first not based on identification with a place (Of Avonlea, Of Lantern Hill, of the Orchard, etc). But the King homestead setting of The Story Girl—as with all the Montgomery novels I’ve read so far—is an integral part of the novel. From Bev and Felix’s delight at returning to their ancestral home to the many colorful incidents that take place there, particularly in the orchard, the King farm and its environs are key players in the little comedies and dramas that play out in The Story Girl.
Unusually, The Story Girl is an ensemble piece, and there isn’t really a main character. Bev, our narrator, is no more present than any of the other children. In fact, except for a couple of memorable incidents involving his chagrin (magic seed, the sermon), Bev is nearly invisible, while the rest of the clan are vivid and highly active. No one character tends to dominate; even the Story Girl, is a very ordinary child when not telling her stories, perhaps a little more self-possessed and observant, but still ordinary. The characters are well developed, each with their own foibles. They are a lively bunch, engaging and realistic. Readers suffer along with Felix under the fat jokes made at his expense, and feel for even the vain Felicity when her domesticity is challenged.
The narrative tends to focus on two things: the relationships between all the children—the interplay between siblings and friends, and even hinted at future couples—and also the reactions of the children to certain experiences on their way to growing up. Rites of passage they undergo include the near death of a beloved pet, being bilked by a schoolmate, the illness and near death of two playmates, confronting feared adults, and loss of innocence on several levels, among other things. These adventures, along with the various rivalries and affections, make up one layer of the novel, while the Story Girl’s tales make up another. Her tales mingle fairy stories, literature, myth, and clan and local folklore, making family history come alive for the children, educating them, especially Bev and Felix, brought up outside the family circle. The Story Girl is about inclusion, making aliens welcome and bringing lost sheep into the fold of family, clan, and locale. It’s about kinship, and our ties to our family and our home, and how those shape us as we grow up.
The whole novel has a strongly nostalgic flavor; Bev tells the story from a distance of decades, but his remembrances are vibrant, still colored with the emotions he felt at the time, and not overly sentimental. Adults are featured only as secondary characters in the novel, and most of our understanding of them comes from the adult Bev’s later epiphanies. When he was a child, he understood as a child. This too differs from Montgomery’s other novels (excepting The Golden Road), which tend to be narrated in the present.
The Story Girl (and its sequel The Golden Road) is one of my favorite Montgomery novels, and is one that I can (and will) read straight through, even when I just meant to read a chapter before bed. After my mother introduced me to Anne of Green Gables, and I had read that series, I continued through the Chronicles before happening on The Story Girl. It made its way across the Pacific and back at least once—much to my father and stepmother’s annoyance, as they could never abide me re-reading anything—and assumed a place of honor as one of my most frequently read Montgomerys. I love the strong feeling of home and nostalgia for an idyllic childhood the novel evokes, and often envied the King clan when I was growing up. I wanted an apple tree of my very own, in an orchard full of my kin’s fruit. Who wouldn’t? I’ve also always enjoyed the adults in the novel, sometimes patronizing, sometimes wonderfully sympathetic, and the very real reactions of the children to them. And the food! Felicity might be a snot, but the girl can cook. Just reading about her cakes and puddings and turnovers gets me drooling. I could probably do a whole series of Gourmanderie posts on that very subject—and perhaps I will!
(I must say, however, though I was excited for the Avonlea series when it debuted, I was more than a little irritated at the liberties it took with the story upon which it was based. As much as I love Sarah Polley (and I do totally love her), she was no Sara Stanley, just a pop-eyed, whey-faced creature.)
Read also: The Golden Road, Chronicles of Avonlea, Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Rainbow Valley all by Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, The Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatly Snyder, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Cover: Very appealing, with fluffy white clouds in an azure sky above an apple tree in bloom in green farmland. And in the right farthest foreground stand Dan, The Story Girl, Felicity, and Peter–and even Paddy the cat. (I feel very strongly about covers that include prominent pets. Well done.) If Cecily were there, it would be close to perfect. It’s very inviting; they seem to be waiting for you to join them for a romp.
Then we opened the front door and stepped out, rapture swelling in our bosoms. There was a rare breeze from the south blowing to meet us; the shadows of the spruces were long and clear-cut; the exquisite skies of early morning, blue and wind-winnowed, were over us; away to the west, beyond the brook field, was a long valley and a hill purple with firs and laced with still leafless beeches and maples.
Behind the house was a grove of fir and spruce, a dim, cool place where the winds were fond of purring and where there was always a resinous, woodsy odour. On the further side of it was a thick plantation of slender silver birches and whispering poplars; and beyond it was Uncle Roger’s house.
Right before us, girt about with its trim spruce hedge, was the famous King orchard, the history of which was woven into our earliest recollections. We knew all about it, from father’s descriptions, and in fancy we had roamed in it many a time and oft.
It was now nearly sixty years since it had had its beginning, when Grandfather King brought his bride home. Before the wedding he had fenced off the big south meadow that sloped to the sun; it was the finest, most fertile field on the farm, and the neighbours told young Abraham King that he would raise many a fine crop of wheat in that meadow. Abraham King smiled and, being a man of few words, said nothing; but in his mind he had a vision of the years to be, and in that vision he saw, not rippling acres of harvest gold, but great, leafy avenues of wide-spreading trees laden with fruit to gladden the eyes of children and grandchildren yet unborn.
It was a vision to develop slowly into fulfilment. Grandfather King was in no hurry. He did not set his whole orchard out at once, for he wished it to grow with his life and history, and be bound up with all of good and joy that should come to his household. So the morning after he had brought his young wife home they went together to the south meadow and planted their bridal trees. These trees were no longer living; but they had been when father was a boy, and every spring bedecked themselves in blossom as delicately tinted as Elizabeth King’s face when she walked through the old south meadow in the morn of her life and love.
When a son was born to Abraham and Elizabeth a tree was planted in the orchard for him. They had fourteen children in all, and each child had its “birth tree.” Every family festival was commemorated in like fashion, and every beloved visitor who spent a night under their roof was expected to plant a tree in the orchard. So it came to pass that every tree in it was a fair green monument to some love or delight of the vanished years. And each grandchild had its tree, there, also, set out by grandfather when the tidings of its birth reached him; not always an apple tree—perhaps it was a plum, or cherry or pear. But it was always known by the name of the person for whom, or by whom, it was planted; and Felix and I knew as much about “Aunt Felicity’s pears,” and “Aunt Julia’s cherries,” and “Uncle Alec’s apples,” and the “Rev. Mr. Scott’s plums,” as if we had been born and bred among them.
And now we had come to the orchard; it was before us; we had only to open that little whitewashed gate in the hedge and we might find ourselves in its storied domain. But before we reached the gate we glanced to our left, along the grassy, spruce-bordered lane which led over to Uncle Roger’s; and at the entrance of that lane we saw a girl standing, with a gray cat at her feet. She lifted her hand and beckoned blithely to us; and, the orchard forgotten, we followed her summons. For we knew that this must be the Story Girl; and in that gay and graceful gesture was an allurement not to be gainsaid or denied.
3 November – 4 November