Welcome to the second of The Mark Steyn Club's Christmas Tales for Our Time this holiday season. We're spending the next few nights with a few stories by Lucy Maud Montgomery, bookended by a brace of Yules with her most famous creation, Anne of Green Gables.
There are Anne fans all over the world, but I was surprised and touched to find that they included John Hinderaker, President of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. John and his Powerline colleagues are one of the few surviving glories of the Golden Age of the Blogosphere, before the Internet degenerated into a YouBook/FaceTube cartel of woke billionaires. After last night's introductory episode, John wrote to recall that his grade-school teacher in South Dakota had made L M Montgomery's tale of a young girl on Prince Edward Island a daily fixture in her lessons:
Every year she would take time out during each class day to read Anne of Green Gables to the class. She timed it to start in the fall and finish in the spring. I listened with rapt attention, as did all the other kids in the class, as far as I know. I've never forgotten those interludes. Miss Klock read from an old, tattered volume that was falling apart. She had read from the same book for quite a few years...
I am happy to see that you are sharing this really excellent book with your readers!
John now lives in Minnesota, and, like his friend Michele Bachmann, is one of many admirers of L M Montgomery in that state. It's been said that the quintessential difference between American and Canadian literature is embodied in their respective iconic figures of Huck Finn and Anne Shirley - the boy who can't wait to "light out for the territory", and the girl looking only to find a home. Whatever the truth of that, today's tale, "Christmas at Red Butte", finds Anne's creator lighting out from Prince Edward Island for the frosty vastness of far northern Saskatchewan on Christmas Eve circa 1909 - or about four years after Saskatchewan became a province.
The town of Prince Albert is more or less a straight shot north from John Hinderaker's boyhood home in South Dakota, nine hundred miles or so, but it's as close as Maud Montgomery gets to his neck of the woods. As I noted in my audio introduction to yesterday's tale, young Maud spent a year in Prince Albert when she was sixteen, a semi-orphan hoping to get re-acquainted with her long absent Papa and to find a new Mama in her young stepmother. She arrived to find she'd been brought the three thousand miles from PEI to serve as the implacably hostile stepmum's housemaid.
As she often did, L M Montgomery took the lemons of her life and made literary lemonade. In "Christmas at Red Butte", the central character Theodora is sixteen years old, like Anne, and living with her aunt because her parents are dead and her only brother has vanished in the Klondike. But unlike the Prince Albert stepmum, the auntie is kindly, if impoverished. Her husband has died, the crops have failed, and the young children face a present-less Christmas:
At seven Mrs. Martin's bells jingled at the door and Theodora flew out. "Go right in and get warm, Auntie," she said briskly. "I'll take Ned away and unharness him."
"It's a bitterly cold night," said Mrs. Martin wearily. There was a note of discouragement in her voice that struck dismay to Theodora's heart.
"I'm afraid it means no Christmas for the children tomorrow," she thought sadly, as she led Ned away to the stable. When she returned to the kitchen Mrs. Martin was sitting by the fire, her face in her chilled hand, sobbing convulsively.
"Auntie—oh, Auntie, don't!" exclaimed Theodora impulsively. It was such a rare thing to see her plucky, resolute little aunt in tears. "You're cold and tired—I'll have a nice cup of tea for you in a trice."
"No, it isn't that," said Mrs. Martin brokenly "It was seeing those stockings hanging there. Theodora, I couldn't get a thing for the children—not a single thing. Mr. Porter would only give forty dollars for the colt, and when all the bills were paid there was barely enough left for such necessaries as we must have..."
You'll hear Theodora make a passing reference to the 1885 Riel Rebellion, which will require no explanation for Canadians. What would stun English Canadians of Miss Montgomery's generation is to learn how, over the ensuing century and a third, Louis Riel's reputation has risen to levels of mandatory hagiography, while that of his nemesis, the Dominion's first prime minister Sir John A Macdonald (whom Maud met as a young girl), has sunk to the point of statue removal and pub renaming. One reason why we read stories from the past here at SteynOnline is because there won't be any past left by the time the vandals are through.
To hear "Christmas at Red Butte", please click here and log-in. Our first L M Montgomery Yuletide tale, "Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves", can be found here - and you can check out all our Tales for Our Time in easy-to-access Netflix-style tile format here, including what seems by comparison with Red Butte a very lavish Civil War Christmas with Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. There's more audio entertainment tomorrow, Sunday, with a special edition of our Song of the Week.
Tales for Our Time started as an experimental feature for Mark Steyn Club members, and, as you know, I said if it was a total stinkeroo, we'd eighty-six the thing and speak no more of it. But I'm thrilled to say it's proving very popular, and looks like it'll be around a while. If you're a Club member and you incline more to the stinkeroo view of it, give it your best in the Comments Section below.
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