Literary Pilgrimages: Kristen den Hartog on LM Montgomery

Fair is fair. A few weeks ago, Kristen den Hartog gave me an opportunity to tell a story on her blog and now I have engaged her to share a story with the Project Bookmark Canada followers. Thanks Kristen!

Kristen den Hartog is a novelist, memoir writer and kids’ book blogger. Her latest novel is And Me Among Them, published in the U.S. as The Girl Giant. Her previous novels are Water Wings, The Perpetual Ending, and Origin of Haloes. The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-torn Holland, was written with her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, and explores the life of their father’s family during the WW2. They’re now at work on another collaboration about their mother’s side of the family in WW1 London, England. Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband, visual artist Jeff Winch, and their daughter.

Today, Kristen tells us about a literary pilgrimage from her childhood–one that didn’t just open her eyes to a place or to a book, but spoke directly to the writer she herself was growing into.

I had all the stories I put on paper or stored away in my mind for future untangling; words that were and are a kind of sustenance for me, just as they were for LM…

I went on my first literary pilgrimage when I was about nine years old, the age my daughter is now. I was with my mom, my older sister Heidi, and our raven-haired Irish aunt-by-marriage, Elizabeth. With my mom at the wheel, we trailed a trailer from our little town in Deep River, Ontario, all the way to the Maritimes. I’m surprised at how spotty my memory is of age nine, and it makes me wonder, will my daughter Nellie remember so little of the things we do together now?

What I do recall is watching the trees rush by the window, though of course it was us doing the rushing. My glamorous, childless aunt, who lived in Toronto and had not seen a lot of rural Canada, found the endless coniferous trees dark and dreary, just as she found us bratty and bold (we knew because my sister peeked in her diary). The trees went on and on, she said aloud; and we also went on and on, she scribbled privately. At night around the camp fire she and my mom would enjoy a bit of red wine, and I had my first sips on that trip, from a blue plastic cup. It made me swoony, giggly, a feeling I liked and disliked.

I was just the right age to fall in love with red sand and seashells, and with Anne Shirley of Green Gables fame. As souvenirs, my mom bought me a stack of Anne books, and also Emily of New Moon, and Jane of Lantern Hill. I remember loving the titles (Anne of Windy Poplars!) and smelling the pages and admiring the girls on the covers, who wore long, old-fashioned dresses but also exuded freedom and spontaneity.

But more than any of this, I remember a fascination with the author – running a finger over the name L.M. Montgomery and thinking how important it sounded with its initials and multiple syllables. K.C. den Hartog. One day that would be me (as if it wasn’t already).

At nine, I had known for almost half my life that I wanted to be a writer. And my mother indulged me on that trip. We visited “Anne’s house,” which I understood was not really her house because there had never really been an Anne. And yet there it was, in white and green splendour, full of all kinds of things that Anne might have used in her daily life had such a life ever occurred. There was even a Haunted Wood and a Lover’s Lane, and I picked a buttercup and a fern frond that are still stuck in my photo album, labeled with swirly cursive like the letters my daughter makes now.

But it’s not Green Gables that stands out in my memory as a literary pilgrimage. Rather it’s the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery. What I recall is a small house, full of relics that were musty and old; letters and photographs and clothing that might crumble if you touched it. Rooms you could look into but not enter, because they were roped off like at the cinema when you were still too early for the movie. I remember leaning in, wanting to enter, wishing it would come to life as it once had been. Unlike at Anne’s house, here there was the feeling of someone who had actually existed, and now existed no longer.

Though I remember so few details of this place, I know it made me tingle all over with a strange mixture of emotions that I did not quite know what to do with. Whatever I read about LM’s life there – or perhaps my mother read to me, and added her own impressions – left me with the certainty that it had not been a happy life. Her mother died when she was a baby, and her grieving father sent her to be raised by her dour grandparents. She had a long, lonely childhood, made vibrant with imaginary friends, and secret notebooks. This I could relate to – though I was happier, luckier, and came from a brighter world, I still had Deanie, who could only be seen by me. And I had all the stories I put on paper or stored away in my mind for future untangling; words that were and are a kind of sustenance for me, just as they were for LM and her swoony, moony Emily:

“Tell me this,” asks Emily’s teacher. “If you knew you would be poor as a church mouse all your life – if you knew you’d never have a line published – would you still go on writing – would you?”

“Of course I would,” said Emily disdainfully. “Why, I have to write – I can’t help it at times – I’ve just got to.”

“I dare say there’ll be other things to worry me. They keep coming up new all the time—things to perplex you, you know. You settle one question and there’s another right after. There are so many things to be thought over and decided when you’re beginning to grow up. It keeps me busy all the time thinking them over and deciding what is right. It’s a serious thing to grow up, isn’t it, Marilla? But when I have such good friends as you and Matthew and Mrs. Allan and Miss Stacy I ought to grow up successfully, and I’m sure it will be my own fault if I don’t. I feel it’s a great responsibility because I have only the one chance. If I don’t grow up right I can’t go back and begin over again.”

from Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

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9 Responses to Literary Pilgrimages: Kristen den Hartog on LM Montgomery

  1. Pingback: My literary pilgrimage | Blog of Green Gables

  2. jim says:

    John Wolcot, the poet and satirist, who wrote under the pseudonym of Peter Pindar would call that “grinning like a Cheshire cat” (-: and I just loved : “If I don’t grow up right I can’t go back and begin over again.” PS Is your Aunt Elizabeth a reader of your blog Kristen?!

  3. Carrie says:

    Lovely post, Kristen. I especially love the quote you’ve chosen at the end of your essay — it’s so poignant and true and timeless.

  4. Marilyn says:

    You have some lovely memories of this trip. And it was fun, but do you also remember the flat tire, failed brakes and Heidi’s pneumonia? Maybe you had your nose in an Anne book, and anyway why should a 9-year-old be worried about things like that?

  5. Such a captivating post, Kristen. You describe your impressions as a child (already a writer) vividly. We drove out to PEI a few years ago with our sons, listening to an audio-cassette of “Anne” en route. The boys were too young then to dismiss a book as being “just for girls.” I knew that was coming, though, and was determined to expose them, gently, to some of my favourites before that happened, so it thrilled me that they enjoyed the story and were eager to visit “Green Gables” and the author’s birthplace.

    Here’s a quote from LM that we read on a plaque in the Woods there and found haunting: “It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond — only a glimpse — but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.” The desire to share those glimpses must have fed her passion to write.

  6. Love it Allyson — I know that quote. It’s beautiful.

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