In Praise of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Night”

I’m here to discuss two classic and very similar books:  “Anne of Green Gables” by L. M. Montgomery, and “Night” by Elie Wiesel.  Both books tell the tale of a child being orphaned and being forced into a new and very uncertain world.   The first one, set in Prince Edward Island, Canada, in the late 1800s/early 1900s, tells the story of Anne Shirley, an odd-looking, red-haired little orphan girl, with an endless mouth and a curiosity to match.  She had been sent to live with farmers–a bachelor brother and his spinster sister–who had signed up (they thought) to get an orphan boy helper.  Anne had previously been stuck working like a slave for two other families, taking care of 4 kids for one till the drunken husband/father died and they no longer wanted her, then going to another where she slaved over 3 sets of twins and 2 other kids until the husband/father died there also, and the woman gave away all her kids, including Anne.  Her parents died when she was 3 months old, so her life had mostly been lots of work with very little love.  Of course, she immediately won over the bachelor brother’s heart and soon won over his sister’s heart.  Though not every moment was without heartache or follies, she basically “lived happily ever after” once she was accepted at Green Gables (though I haven’t read the other books in the series, so maybe there was some Satan worship and drunkenness and wife-beating in the other books–I’ll probably never know).

The second book, “Night” by Elie Wiesel, tells the true story of Eliezer Wiesel, a Hungarian Jew who was in his early teens when his entire family was uprooted by the Nazis and sent first to Auschwitz, then (some of them) were sent to other camps.  His parents and his little sister died, the females probably the same day they got to Auschwitz, and his father at the end of a forced march, where many concentration-camp inmates were made to run, till they dropped, to escape the Russian advance and get to another camp.  The nightmarish horrors of the first night that he was at Auschwitz caused Elie, formerly a devout Jew who had wanted to be a mystic, to deny the existence of God and renounce his faith.  The rest of his short book tells of his time in various camps and the very beginning of his subsequent life, when, like Anne, he became an orphan trying to make his way in the world.

Oh sure, there were subtle differences between the two stories that the most careful of readers might find:  Upon reaching the train station at Bright River, Anne was confused and worried to find that noone was there to greet her; Matthew (the bachelor farmer) was late, and she started to make plans to spend the night in a nearby tree.  Elie, on the other hand, got off the train at Auschwitz to see his mother and sisters immediately separated from he and his father, and witnessed truckloads of children and babies being burned in an open pit.  Subtle differences, yet there for the discovery by discerning readers.

All joking and silliness aside, these two books do both speak of the trials of orphaned children.  Of course, the books are wildly different, with “Anne of Green Gables” being somewhat of a children’s book, one which I picked up at a rummage sale for my daughter to read someday.  I decided to read it myself after reading “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (by Lionel Shriver), a frightening novel about an unwanted child who turned into a school spree-killer.  I needed some comic relief after the relentlessly sad and scary ending of that otherwise great book, so I picked up “Anne”.  It actually is a very nice book, and has some gems like this:  (Marilla, the spinster sister, talks about Anne)  “I can’t imagine the place without her.  Now don’t be looking I-told-you-so, Matthew.  That’s bad enough in a woman, but it isn’t to be endured in a man.”  Mark Twain apparently called these stories about Anne: “the sweetest creation of child life yet written.”

I had bought “Night” years ago and parked it on my bookshelf to someday read.  Since it is only 109 pages long, and I have the patience of a serial killer, the frenzied part at the end, I mean, not the careful planning and hunting processes (but without the violence, of course), I recently decided it was high time to finally read it, as I didn’t feel like committing to a longer book.  You know, you think you’ve seen or read or heard at least all the different types of details about WWII and the genocide–I once had (where did they go?) several volumes of something called “Doctors of Death” describing some of the ghastly experiments done by concentration camp doctors and other Nazis, and have read other books, seen movies and miniseries and other shows about the Holocaust, but the relating, by Wiesel, of the truckloads of babies being dumped into a burning pit was a new one to me.  He doesn’t really say if they were already dead or not.  His thoughts on his first night at Auschwitz:  “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.  Never shall I forget that smoke.  Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.  Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.  Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.”  I do hope that my daughter reads this book, too, someday, but hopefully not until at least her late teens.  As the New York Times review said, it most definitely is “A slim volume of terrifying power.”

(Oh, and if you believe all ESP talk is hogwash, then tell me why the lady in the boxcar on the way to Auschwitz went mad, screaming “Look at the fire!  Flames, flames, everywhere….”  And she was considered the crazy one, and beaten, by her fellow people, so that she would shut up.)

I highly recommend both.

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This song isn’t really apropos, but it does speak of the horrors some children endure, (not me, was raised by 2 of the nicest people to ever walk the earth, thank you very much), has been one of my favorites since I first heard it, and I have always wanted to sneak it in to a post).  Hell (sometimes) IS for children:

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9 Responses to In Praise of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Night”

  1. There is so much horrror in the world’s history, so much still here, that scares me down deep. When I was in my early teens and first began to learn of the rise of the nazis and the Holocaust, I watched a lot of movies and documentaries and read whatever I could find about it. I wanted to learn what I could about slavery in the US and in the present world, and then about what our country did to the people who were already here when Columbus “discovered” America.

    Now I realize I sought out information because I couldn’t comprehend that human beings could perpetrate such things. These subjects are never far from my mind. That’s why I have trouble reading or watching much about them anymore. I just can’t take it. I may never be able to read Mr. Wiesel’s book.

    • Genocide and other horrors are still here, aren’t they (though not so organized as the Nazis were)? I sympathize with your inability to read any more about the bastards. I hang on to the good things, like the fact that there were survivors and there were little kindnesses by other prisoners in spite of all the evil. I can’t read serial-killer books any more myself. It evolved from being morbidly, jaw-gapingly fascinated with the mere fact of Ted Bundy’s evil history, and the skill of Anne Rule at telling it (but relieved he was caught), to quickly scanning through their crimes (hiding my eyes behind my hands, if you will, through the early parts of the books) to get to the process of HOW they were caught, to being so sickened, by the last one I read, that I doubt I will ever read another.

  2. WordPress just ate my comment. It’s just as well. It was a little wordy anyway.

    I’ll just say that man’s inhumanity to man has always made me so sad. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to read Mr. Wiesel’s book.

  3. It’s an awful feeling you get when you’re reminded how bad people can be, a sort of combination of horror and disbelief and in my case almost wanting to die rather than inhabit the same planet as people who’d do this stuff. Almost. I remember running out of the theatre feeling sick after Midnight Express (and now I can’t even remember why – there are so many things worse than that). I’ve never thought about the ESP aspects. You know, if there IS ESP, then life is not quite as we think it is. Or at least as I think it is.

    • The world’s been a big mess of evil a lot of the time. I don’t think it’s a fit place to live either a lot of the time; just have to hang our hats on the better parts, I guess. I believe a little in psychic things and feelings, though that does seem to imply a sense of afterlife, ghosts, angels, eternity, and other ideas that are hard to swallow.

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