Every book geek has his or her own literary rituals and traditions, and I am no different; hence, at the beginning of every spring I pull L.M. Montgomery's 1926 novel, The Blue Castle, (Can), (UK), off the shelf to reread. This ritual occurs partly because I first read the novel in March at the age of 13 years old, just as the spring was first breaking, and partly because at the time I was suffering through the two greatest cruelties inflicted on Canadians and teenagers: slushly late winters and middle school.
If you have read the tale, you will recognise why I might choose the beginning of spring to read Valancy Stirling's reviving story of rebirth and rejuvination. While Montgomery herself labelled the novel, "an amusing little comedy for adults," Valancy and her break from the oppression of her small-minded, judgemental family and society, has meant much more to me than mere amusement (although the novel is very amusing). If you too remember 13 accurately, you will sympathise with my timely need for a novel about breaking free from small-minded society. If you too have suffered through a Canadian winter, and died a little inside of happiness at the smell of melting snow in spring, you will sympathise keenly.
The story begins with Valancy Stirling waking one morning with the realisation that the next day she will be 29 years old, and that she has no hope of becoming married and escaping the drudgery of her spinster life. She lives a joyless existence with her uncaring mother and tiresome, elderly cousin. Her family views her as a weak, insignificant girl; a poor shadow of her beautiful, charming cousin Olive, who is constantly pursued by suitable bachelors. She lives a life of dreary obligation and timidity, until one day, bothered by a continual heart pain, she visits a heart specialist, who tells her that she has at most a year to live.
Determined not to live her remaining year under the thumb of her family, she keeps her ailment to herself, adopts a carpe diem attitude, and proceeds to shock her family by behaving exactly as she likes: laughing at them outwardly, and going to live with the town drunk, in order to nurse his dying daughter, who has been shunned by society after giving birth to an illigitimate baby.
Critics have not always responded well to The Blue Castle, finding Valancy's sudden transformation unlikely. Is this novel a work of great, explorative art? No. Is the ending a little predictable? Sure. Is it a little sentimental and soppy? Yes. Do critics who gripe about things like that probably go home and kick puppies? I would imagine so.
This novel was originally intended for adults, likely because of what at the time would have considered adult themes, but would now be considered tame for any afterschool programming. The tone and scope would be perfect for any girl in her early teens, or any adult who wants to escape back to that elfin, enchanted world of L.M.Montgomery.
The novel is written with Montgomery's unimitatable tone (just ask Budge Wilson), weaving between acidic, witty observations of human nature, and dreamy depictions of the wilderness. Montgomery gives Valancy the ability to gut her family with her razor sharp tongue, and then escape to dream in the wilds of Muskoka. This novel is one of the few stories that Montgomery does not set in her trademark PEI landscapes, and the Muskoka that Valancy finds refuge in is full of smoky grey wood cabins, wildflowers, tall pine trees, and purple shadows.