1722 Time travel with Jo & Anne
Two books reviewed by Carole Gerson in consultation with Clarissa Gerson
Jo: An Adaptation of Little Women (Sort Of)
by Kathleen Gros
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada (Quill Tree Books), 2020
$15.99 / 9780062875969
Anne: An Adaptation of Anne of Green Gables (Sort Of)
by Kathleen Gros
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada (Quill Tree Books), 2022
$28.50 / 9780063057661
How might the stories of two classic young heroines, Jo March of Little Women (1868) and Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables (1908), unfold today, more than a century after they first appeared in print? The world of North American adolescent girls has irrevocably changed from quill pens and crinolines to cell phones and blue jeans, yet the stories of these particular characters, whose individualism and creativity reflect the experiences of their authors, remain sufficiently captivating to be retold and adapted into multiple formats. Films, TV series, stage plays, spin-off fictions, musicals, ballets, and cartoons are now joined by two graphic novels by Vancouver-based Kathleen Gros, in whose hands “coming of age” transforms to “coming out.”
Engagingly illustrated in full colour, both books are aimed at young readers seeking their identities as they wrestle with the complex emotions that beset adolescents, and both are set in modern urban environments where racial diversity is the norm. Montgomery’s pastoral village of Avonlea is replaced by a huge apartment building (the Avon-Lea) in an unnamed Canadian city with ravines that imply Toronto; Alcott’s Marsh family lives in a generic American town. Reading the two books side-by-side brings out their similarities. At the beginning, both girls are nervously embarking on a new year in a new school, and both discover congenial friends in literary communities: the school newspaper for Jo, and the zine club for Anne. Both are well supported by their families or guardians as they gradually realize that they are romantically attracted to girls rather than boys, and both books end with a same-sex kiss.
To present a narrative of modern-day adolescent self-discovery, why adapt an enduring classic – with the caution that the new book is “sort of” like its antecedent? Is the aim to suggest underlying but previously untellable homosocial elements in the original books? Is familiarity being deployed to grab the attention of young readers and of the adults who buy books for them? It is intriguing to track Gros’s transformation of various plot elements from the primary narratives, noting how she sanitized the stories by removing the death scenes that are among both books’ most memorable moments. The four March girls retain their distinctive personalities, with sweet-tempered Beth recovering from leukaemia rather than dying towards the end of Little Women. Their absent father is now on a mysterious military assignment overseas rather than serving as a chaplain for the Union Army in the American Civil War (referenced as a history topic on a schoolroom blackboard), and their warm-hearted mother easily fits her new career of hospital nurse. Allusions in the names of the girls’ schools link to Alcott’s biography: Thomas Niles High School is named for the publisher who encouraged Alcott to write the book, and Roberts Middle School bears the name of the firm that employed Niles.
The reader familiar with Anne of Green Gables will be on the lookout for modern equivalents of Anne’s well-known misadventures. Gros skips the liniment cake, the spiked raspberry cordial, and the lost amethyst broach, but retains Anne breaking her slate on Gilbert’s head, mistakenly dying her hair green, and fracturing her ankle when she accepts a dangerous dare. Matthew is well captured in his reincarnation as the apartment building’s shy, capable maintenance man but escapes the death that brings tears to most readers; Montgomery’s austere Marilla is less recognizable as a rather hearty, full-bodied bookkeeper. Gilbert is a more of an annoying tease than in the original book and of course Diana is now more than Anne’s chaste “bosom friend” (Montgomery’s term, which does not appear here and has received considerable attention ) as the two girls finally acknowledge the true nature of their affection.
What is the likely impact of these easy-to-read versions, aimed at ages 8-12 according to their back covers? Might they send their young readers to the original novels, even though these contain challenging complex sentences and arcane socio-historical references that have become increasingly distant over time? To address some of these questions, I consulted Clarissa, my 11-year-old granddaughter, a seasoned reader of graphic fiction who liked the drawings and found both books interesting, albeit less than amazing. In her view, the designated age group should be somewhat younger as the reading level suits those who are 8-10. As with most members of her generation, Clarissa’s experience of both stories is second-hand. She enjoyed watching the Anne with an E series while the Toronto schools were essentially closed during the Covid lockdown, and she has seen the 2019 film of Little Women several times. While she liked the modernization of the stories (preferring Jo because she found its plot more interesting), she thought that their depiction of middle-school life could have been more intense, and she was not at all surprised by the books’ same sex pairing, viewed as normal by today’s urbane youth. Given Clarissa’s familiarity with the original characters, she felt that retaining their names created more resonance than would be the case if Gros’s stories were enacted by characters with different names. What then is the appeal of such adaptations – is it the connection with their original narratives and characters, or is it rather the disconnection created by Gros’s divergent “sort of” adaptations, or is it some combination of the two? In any case, I am now curious about her next project: perhaps she’ll reshape the story of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz or of Laura from Wilder’s “Little House” books.
Carole Gerson (FRSC) is Professor Emerita in the English Department at Simon Fraser University. Co-editor of volume 3 (1918-1980) of History of the Book in Canada / Histoire du livre et de l’imprimé au Canada, she has published extensively on Canada’s literary and cultural history with a focus on early Canadian women writers, from well-known figures such as Pauline Johnson and L.M. Montgomery to more obscure figures who can be found in her two databases: Canada’s Early Women Writers and the more inclusive Database of Canada’s Early Women Writers. In 2011, her book, Canadian Women in Print, 1750-1918, won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian criticism. In 2013 she received the Marie Tremaine medal from the Bibliographical Society of Canada. Her most recent book, co-authored with Peggy Lynn Kelly, is Hearing More Voices: English-Canadian Women in Print and on the Air, 1914-1960 (Ottawa, 2020), reviewed here by Phyllis Reeve. Editor’s note: Carole Gerson has previously reviewed books by Eli MacLaren and Dede Crane for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster
 Robinson, Laura. “Bosom Friends: Lesbian Desire in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Books.” Canadian Literature 180 (Spring 2004): 12–28. https://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/canlit/article/view/193053.