Warning: this review contains spoilers, and depending on your taste the amount of them can be regarded as small or awfully much, so beware before proceeding.
Anne of Windy Poplars is the fourth book in the Anne of Green Gables eight-book series, by L.M. Montgomery. In this novel, Anne becomes a high school principal in Summerside, in which position she will stay for three years to wait for her newly-engaged sweetheart Gilbert Blythe to finish medical school and become a doctor, after which they will finally marry.
The novel was written in 1936, long after six other books of the series have been finished (including the last, Rilla of Ingleside), so the style of this book is unsurprisingly different from the earlier six. Apparently, the most visible differences are just lack of chapter titles (although this might be edition-specific) and the generous use of ellipses in this book, but these (or maybe something else) really gives the book a different "feel" --- it is rather unlike the six books written earlier, but much more dreamy and romantic, trading some of their warmth for sweetness. Well, another consequence of the lateness of the novel is that it is possible to skip this one without getting too confused in the following books, but I don't think any Anne fan would like to do without this perfectly nice member of the series.
A large portion of the novel is comprised of Anne's letters to Gilbert. If anyone has been expecting a dramatic love story between the two, he/she would be much surprised to find that everything goes as placidly as it can be, in this aspect; I suspect it is because the love between them did not come easily, and both parties have matured so much during the search for it (I refer you to the last several chapters of the previous book Anne of the Island), they are no longer likely to handle it carelessly like so many other young, rash lovers. The parts that can be truly called "love letters" are kindly omitted by the author, leaving Anne's own experiences in Summerside for the most part, although some sweet paragraphs do seep out here and there, from which one can almost taste the deep love between them. Hard to think that Anne and Gilbert happened to have been enemies in much of their teen years! Maybe hate is the closest thing to love after all.
Rather, this novel is mainly about Anne's experiences in fitting herself into an unfamiliar environment with all kinds of unfamiliar people. I remember when I first saw an advertisement for the Anne series (before which I didn't know whom Anne was at all), I simply dismissed it as "a less interesting Pollyanna clone", for I had been madly in love with the Pollyanna books at that time. When I actually came round to read Anne of Green Gables, it seems to me that Anne in her teens isn't much of a Pollyanna after all, even though they are both orphans and both extremely talkative; but after reading this one, it strikes me that Anne at 23 is actually more like Pollyanna than Pollyanna herself at the same age. Don't be scared away if you don't like Pollyanna, I just mean that Anne has a rare talent of making friends with unfamiliar people, often queer and seemingly sulky ones, and a natural desire to attempt helping others who are unfortunate or being misunderstood (or said unkindly, "meddling with other people's business"), even when running the risk of hurting them instead, similar to Pollyanna who had her adventures with Mrs. Snow, Mr. Pendleton, Dr. Chilton, Sadie Dean and Jamie. Of course, things do not work the same way for 23-year-old Anne as for 11-year-old Pollyanna, but with her kind heart and clever, creative brain, Anne's results are mostly as good, although there are times when her cleverness results in bitter catastrophes.
I believe the theme of this novel is about the misunderstandings between "good" people.
There are no really "bad" people in this novel (another similarity to Pollyanna); Anne believes that there is something good and soft in everyone's heart, only they are often hidden by a hard shell, either innate or grown out of bitter experiences, and she tries hard to find the "soft spot" in everybody; even if she fails or sometimes gives up, it is not that she believes otherwise. Yet such shells are often rather opaque, or worse, distorting, which is the cause of most misunderstandings in the novel, or for that matter, also in the real world. Anne, who spent her early childhood in a rather loveless environment, and now quite far from her old friends, has a natural desire to make friend with everyone, as long as possible; but it is not a smooth ride, as we all probably know, human hearts are curious things that sometimes act rather contrary to common sense. Sometimes kindness alone pays off pretty well; sometimes a little tact helps; sometimes the cleverness works completely against her expectations; and even then, a totally unexpected success may still be the result sometimes.
Okay, let's start from the first people she gets acquainted, which are, of course, the people at Windy Poplars (isn't it a lovely name?). They are Aunt Kate, Aunt Chatty and their servant, Rebecca Dew. Both aunts are old widows, but they are not really very like old folks or widows; each has some interesting queerness and "little secrets" that they allow Anne to know, but would not want the other to know. Anne gets on pretty well with the two "aunts", but Rebecca Dew is a much more interesting person. Like many long-time servants, Rebecca has much authority at Windy Poplars. She has a kind heart, and rather outspoken about her feelings, but her relationship with Dusty Miller, the cat kept by the aunts out of kindness, is most memorable. She has always disliked cats in general, so she calls the cat "That Cat", and exclaims "This is the last straw" every time it misbehaves, as if she would resign at once unless the cat were sent away, although she has actually never carried out such a thing. One day, the aunts found one woman who was able to accept the cat, so they sent the cat to her without Rebecca's consent, believing she really hated it. When Rebecca came back and found the cat gone, she went into tantrums, exclaimed "This is the last straw" again, and for the first time actually meant it, until the aunts got the cat back, for she finally found that she loved the cat after all, in spite of her habitual lamentations about it. This story ends well, for Rebecca stops complaining about the cat after that, but I can't help thinking that many people have valued consistency too much, they want to appear consistent even when their hearts have changed, and they even refuse to realize the changes in their hearts! Even Anne's illusion about Roy Gardiner in Anne of the Island can be put into this category.
Most of the characters in the book appear only in a few chapters, then hardly ever mentioned again; besides the folks at Windy Poplars, the only exception seems to be "little Elizabeth", whose story is throughout the whole novel. Elizabeth, 8-year-old at the beginning of the novel, lives in a nearby house named Evergreens with her grandmother and a housemaid "The Women", who treats her acceptably as far as physical comfort and education go, but utterly lacking in love. Elizabeth's mother died when Elizabeth was born, and the heartbroken father left for Paris doing business, leaving the care to the grandmother whose unkindness to Elizabeth could be much attributed to her being the cause of her mother's death. Despite (or may I say because of?) all these, Elizabeth is a love-hungry, fanciful child, who likes to change her name from Miss Elizabeth to Betty to Beth to Lizzie and others depending on her mood, and believes that she will get into a "Tomorrow" in which the grandmother and "the Woman" will no longer be able to boss her as they do in "Today". This really suits dreamy Anne, of course, and they immediately become good friends. They often have long walks outside, reluctantly permitted by Elizabeth's grandmother, during which Elizabeth confides her troubles to Anne, they draw a map of fairyland together, and Elizabeth once even paid a visit to Green Gables during one of Anne's summer holidays, loving and being loved by everyone there, from the twins to Marilla and Mrs. Lynde. As time passed, Elizabeth began to feel terribly lonely (like "Lizzie", as she usually says) whenever Anne was away, and when Anne's three years in Summerside was coming to an end, Elizabeth feared it would be the end of everything, but she did not expect that one of Anne's letters sent out with scant hope had actually brought her father back! This is the sweetest part of this already sweet novel, which feels just like... "Tomorrow".
Katherine Brooke, the vice president of the school, is Anne's another success in making friends, and a hard-earned one at that. Katherine is a bitter 28-year-old woman, who hates Anne because she seems to have everything her heart desires, while her own life is bitter with an unloved youth, deep debts, lack of lovers, and even her hope to become the school president became shattered when Anne got the place. At first, she was so terribly sarcastic to Anne, the latter almost gave up trying to make friends with her "for there are limits". Yet, Anne's eyes are keen enough to see that Katherine is very lonely, so she once ventured to invite Katherine to Green Gables for Christmas, and Anne's kind words, mixed wisely with a few sharp ones, together with Katherine's own unwillingness to spend her Christmas alone in a boarding house, did the wonder. Things went smoothly after the visit, Katherine soon quited teaching (which she disliked) after her financial troubles were sorted out, went to Queen's for some education, and finally got a job as a secretary for a travelling man, so her wild dream of going around the world actually came true.
The above two successes are probably the most memorable parts of Anne's experiences in Summerside, but as far as her career goes, the most important success is undoubtedly getting into the circle of Pringles. The Pringles is a xenophobic clan that constitutes a large part of Summerside's population. During Anne's first months in Summerside, the Pringle students in the school organized a campaign of insubordination and disrespect against her, led by Jen Pringle, a bright girl, and supported by their parents, with the intention of driving a stranger like Anne out of the school. Anne was really at her wit's end on such organized insubordination, and thought of resignation more than once, but a kind and clever act on her part saved her. During a visit she got some historical diaries about the Pringle family, so she sent the thing to the elder Pringles, hoping they would be of some use, although she did hesitate much due her "feud" with the Pringles. Well, the diaries happened to contain some very disagreeable material about a certain member of the Pringle family, so all so suddenly, the feud between Anne and the Pringles was over. Maybe they thanked Anne for preventing the disagreeable things from getting into the hands of someone else, maybe they respected Anne for the ability of getting hold of such things, maybe they feared her lest she spread the word herself, while Anne's real intentions seemed be different from all these. Anyway, whatever the Pringles thought, they were very kind to Anne afterwards, with Jen becoming a model student and a promising young woman. Things sometimes do go in most unexpected ways, it seems.
Anne also has had many other successes, expected or unexpected, including two cases in "matchmaking". However, she also has had her share of bitter failures, in which the worst one is with her student Hazel, who confided her love troubles to Anne, somehow feeling that she does not really love her engaged boyfriend Terry and everything was an illusion. The unfortunate thing was that Hazel did not really know her heart (and who can blame a high school girl when Anne herself misunderstood her heart during her Redmond days?), but Anne took her words literally and had a talk to Terry persuading him to break the engagement, while Hazel's real wish is precisely the opposite. To make things worse, Terry actually took a sudden fancy in Anne herself! Well, Hazel and Terry realized the love between them in time, so the entanglement between them got resolved at least, but Anne became the victim, for the young couple could not forgive her, even though Anne actually had no ill intentions at all. It really hurts me to see how such a big misunderstanding can arise so easily, when noone seems to have done anything very wrong.
There are many other stories in the novel, some sweet, some tragic, some queer, and some are simply funny, such as Anne's exhilarating failure to look after a pair of unbelievably naughty 8-year-old twins (even though she had looked after four pairs before then!). Overall, this novel is a great teller of "worldly wisdoms", not too far from real life, nor common or selfish like those told by many parents today, nor the least bit preachy, so I definitely recommend it, though it does seem to start a bit slowly for me.
The full text of this book is available outside of the US at Project Gutenberg of Australia.