Rebecca Rowena Randall is the second of seven children in the struggling Randall family. They live on a farm in rural Maine in the late 19th century. Her father is dead, and her mother sends Rebecca to live with her aunts Miranda, irritable, parsimonious, and extremely practical, and Jane, gentle, good at peacemaking, but still unused to children. Although they had originally wanted Rebecca’s older sister (she’s more to their taste), their heart is in the right place: they are committed to getting Rebecca an education so she can better her family’s lot. The book traces Rebecca’s years from age ten to seventeen. She is an optimistic, capable girl, a cut above all the other people in her limited world of village and farms because of her imagination and quick mind. Her prospects are promising because of her talents – writing, music, acting, public speaking, art. This combines with a sweet nature, a love for people, and a yearning for wider experiences. Her imaginative ways clash with Aunt Miranda’s insistence that she be more ordinary and down-to-earth. Rebecca excels in school, but Aunt Miranda’s heart is hard to win.
The story itself felt so much like Anne of Green Gables I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the two as I read it. I wish I could have stopped myself, because it impeded my enjoyment. If I had read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm first, no doubt I would have loved it more. Mostly I had trouble with the narrator/author, Kate Douglas Wiggin. She was not as lyrical or positive as L. M. Montgomery, and thus she undermined her heroine. Rebecca, I felt, would have been better handled by L. M. Montgomery. Wiggin has a tendency to be harsh on her characters (save Rebecca!), almost cautioning you not to like them too much, while Montgomery made you like almost everyone, even the unpleasant people. Aunt Miranda is mean and miserly, Emma Jane (Rebecca’s closest friend) is frightfully dull, Mr. and Mrs. Cobb (an older couple who dote on Rebecca) are sweet but simple-minded, Miss Dearborn (the schoolteacher) is ignorant. Rebecca’s vibrancy made me frown at most of the other characters, because of how Mrs. Wiggin critically contrasted them to Rebecca. But Rebecca herself would be a wonderful friend – sweet, personable, intelligent, and committed to doing right. She’s a bright light in her world.
Despite my annoyance with this negativity, I realized that there is a special strength to the author’s story and style. Because Mrs. Wiggin doesn’t paint life in shades of rose, Rebecca’s triumphs feel more remarkable. She rises above her circumstances with a mindset of hope and joy. Mrs. Wiggin writes thoughtfully and spiritually; there are life lessons she wants to impart to her readers, and a bond she wants them to form with the heroine. I loved some of her insightful messages so much that I copied them into my book journal:
The girl’s [Rebecca’s] eyes were soft and tender, and the heart within her stretched a little and grew, grew in sweetness and intuition and depth of feeling. It had looked into another heart, felt it beat, and heard it sigh, and that is how all hearts grow.
You might harness Rebecca to the heaviest plow, and while she had youth on her side, she would always remember the green earth under her feet and the blue sky over her head. Her physical eye saw the cake she was stirring and the loaf she was kneading; her physical ear heard the kitchen fire crackling and the teakettle singing, but ever and anon her fancy mounted on pinions, renewed itself, renewed it strength in the upper air. The bare little farmhouse was a fixed fact, but she had many a palace into which she now and then withdrew, palaces peopled with stirring and gallant figures belonging to the world of romance, palaces not without their heavenly apparitions, too, breathing celestial counsel. Every time she retired to her citadel of dreams she came forth radiant and refreshed, as one who has seen the evening star or heard sweet music or smelled the rose of joy.
“I look like a drudge,” said Rebecca mysteriously, with laughing eyes, “but really I am a princess; you mustn’t tell, but this is only a disguise; I wear it for reasons of state. … why, Mother, it’s enough joy just to be here in the world on a day like this, to have the chance of seeing, feeling, doing, becoming!”
Aren’t these lovely? Through Rebecca (the only one, it seems, who had it just right), Mrs. Wiggin presented a message of seeing the daylight on the far side of the night and of sacrificing for other people to make their lives brighter.
Have you ever read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?