Goodreads Book Blurb:
Montgomery is a beautiful writer. Her prose evokes vivid imagery of idyllic maritime Canada, particularly Prince Edward Island. Her characters are bright and full of purpose and I have always loved her larger than life Anne, Valancy, and Emily (Anne of Green Gables, The Blue Castle, and Emily of New Moon, respectively). Their magic is weaved throughout my childhood and adolescence with multiple rereads and memories which allow for a pure nostalgia hit whenever I revisit them now. She has always made me wish I was more creative, closer to nature, more ambitious, and a better, kinder person in general.
Unfortunately, I won’t be adding Kilmeny, or Eric, to my list of favourite Montgomery protagonists. I am hoping that my unease is caused by the passage of time, but I can’t claim to know what PEI, Canada, or the world, was like in 1910 (when this book was published). Kilmeny of the Orchard is a quick, easy novella to read. I found it impossible to not get caught up in Montgomery’s narrative about a sweet love story between a sheltered, disabled young woman and the “perfect” man. I wanted to give in and appreciate that Eric saw past Kilmeny’s disability and fought to bring her out into the world and into his life. However, I just couldn’t disregard the blatant racism and sexism that ran rampant as the story continued.
Starting innocently, the story ran along for a time before introducing a new character. The initial description of Neil when Eric passes him on the road is a little strange, focusing on his feminine beauty and Italian heritage, but not overtly racist. I don’t know the Italian population in rural PEI in the early 1900s. Maybe the unusual description is due to a small or non-existent demographic in the area? Moving on, I’m swept back up in the story. But as Eric and Kilmeny become closer, the comments about Neil become more insistent, more volatile, increasingly aggressive. The excuse given for his changing temperament: his Italian nature which had been dormant until now was beginning to expose itself. There are actual comments from the family who took him in suggesting that they made him feel ‘too much like part of the family’ and they ‘should’ve known better.’ This came entirely out of left field for me. Sure, Montgomery has villains in her stories, but they’re not usually penned as villainous solely because of their ethnicity. Leading up to the climax of his uncontrollable Italian rage and violent nature, the increasingly flagrant comments become more insistent and play a central role in the story.
Similarly, the sexism here started small. Eric’s comments about dating, marriage, and love could be construed as naive and almost sweet. His, older, friend David and his father are more jaded and their comments aren’t quite as easy to pass over, but I remind myself it’s 1910. Of course love and romance are possible, but marriage is an expected norm, especially for a young man who has just completed his studies and happens to be an only child planning to take over the family business. And yes, Kilmeny is described as incredibly beautiful, but it’s her unexpected appearance and violin skill that first draws Eric to her. However, the comments about her beauty become overpowering as a description of her character. By the end, when Eric tells others of his love for Kilmeny and his (I’m not considering this a spoiler, it’s basically in the book description) desire to marry her, they express surprise that this usually pragmatic young man has succumbed to a mysterious spell, or curse, to spend his life with mute stranger. His response? “Wait until you meet her.” Is it her musical talent, her charming personality, her loving family that will convince Eric’s friends and family that he hasn’t been hoodwinked? Perhaps her excellent housekeeping skills, good genes, and family money are the reason a man in the early twentieth century has decided to suddenly settle down. Clearly we’re not reading the same book and you haven’t been paying attention to the rest of my review. Kilmeny is young, beautiful, and untouched by another man. What other skills or attributes would one desire in a bride? I suppose this could be construed as a spoiler, but the most aggravating for me was when…
… Kilmeny had finally found her voice, thanks to the violent actions of the evil Italian forcing her to overcome her mental block to prevent his attempt on Eric’s life (so villainous and helpless against the savage nature of his ethnicity, Neil immediately… runs away never to be heard from again). Eric’s father comes to the Island to try to speak sense to his son, convinced by their mutual friend David that he will understand in the end. Eric once again drops the “wait until you meet her” and his father agrees to go along. They meet her family, who are my favourite characters in the book, and off to the orchard they trek to meet Kilmeny. Surely, now that she can speak, her charming personality and unique perspective will quickly win over Eric’s father, a man whose overwhelming love for his departed wife has shaped Eric’s views on love and marriage so formidably. Try again. Girl barely gets a word out before Eric’s father is falling over himself to welcome her into the family, overcome by her beauty alone in the orchard …
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