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Field Notes - My Day with Maud
by Gloria Hildebrant

NESTLED in a valley northwest of Toronto, on the banks of the Credit River, is the blink-and-miss-it village of Norval, Ontario. A prominently positioned rock near the river's edge bears a plaque that sums up local history: a mill used to stand here. Norval is not a picturesque rural hamlet. The reason to visit is that L. M. Montgomery lived here for about 10 years.

Volume III of The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, covers the period in which Maud accompanied her husband Rev. Ewan Macdonald to his two-point charge based in Norval, which means that he became responsible for both the Norval Presbyterian Church in downtown Norval and the Union Presbyterian Church in the country. The Macdonalds lived in the manse in Norval, and Maud taught Sunday school in both locations, along with performing the many other often tiresome (according to her journals) duties expected of a minister's wife.

When promoting their work, Rubio and Waterston warned the Norval community to brace itself for an onslaught of Anne-loving tourism. Since I grew up and now live not far from Norval, I set out to document its literary attractions.

I begin by attending a Sunday-morning service at the Norval Presbyterian Church; this is, incidentally, the only way to see the interior, because the church is not open at any other time. Before I go any further, I had better declare my bias. I am a "high" Anglican, which means that I consider myself a small "c" catholic, and am accustomed to prayers in Latin, incense, belts, and two choirs singing. I know not to expect any of this at Norval, but am pleasantly surprised to find that it is, nevertheless, a big day: in addition to being Father's Day, there are two infant baptisms and communion.

I am not prepared, however, for "children's time, when the kiddies receive a little lesson up front before they vanish from sight. The female minister says, "Men are different, aren't they? Fathers worry about the length of their sons'...," jolting me into breathless attention - am I about to hear what I'm thinking? - but then she adds "hair," and I exhale in relief.

Her sermon on remembrance being the deepest human prayer is moving she notes Jesus' request at the Last Supper to be remembered in the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine but then she mars the spell for me with her curious invitation to communion, "Come to the table all you who are dismembered." I have an image of separate body parts moving to the front.

Nor is communion what I am used to: the congregation remains seated while a plate of cubed white bread is passed around, followed by an intriguing contraption holding plastic thimbles full of what turns out to be grape juice. When the minister moves her thimble to her lips, everyone else does the same, knocking off the whole shot of juice in one go and then rattling the empty cups into little curved shelves attached to the pew in front of them.

There are three items in the church of particular interest to Maud lovers. A banner on the wall reads "The Alexander Auxiliary Norval Presbyterian Church 1888-1988 Women's Missionary Society." Maud worked for the society, and even served as Norval's president, but her journals suggest that she considered it to be less than fulfilling.

On the left wall of the church is a plaque dedicated to the memory of Rev. Ewan Macdonald; it also points out that the noted authoress L. M. Montgomery was his wife. Downstairs is a photograph of the minister. There is no picture of Maud.

(No tours are held of the church, nor of the manse, which is still used to house the incumbent minister. When I later called the minister, she said she does not appreciate tourists prowling through her living quarters.)

After the service, I stroll west with the traffic along Highway 7 to the sole Montgomery shrine in town, the Norval public school. No longer used as a school, it is identified by a sign on the lawn as "Norval Community Centre, Halton Hills Rec & Parks Dept., Georgetown

Day Care Centre." I'm confused by the three different geographic references, and since I have known this area all my life, I wonder what sense visitors will make of Norval, Halton Hills, and Georgetown.

Behind the sign, closer to the building, is Norval's second big rock displaying a plaque. This one is made of plastic, and is so loosely screwed into the rock that it practically cries out for vandalism.

The text tells you everything you ever wanted to know about Maud and Norval, including when she lived there (1926-1935), the names of her two sons, the titles of all the books she "penned in the Manse bedroom facing Russell's Hill and its pine trees," a favourable description she wrote of Norval, and bibliographic detail about the RubioWaterston journals, including where the originals are housed (University of Guelph). After reading this plastic sign, is there any more to learn?

A few weeks later I am back on a Thursday afternoon, having managed to arrange a private tour of the church. It's late afternoon on a particularly hot day, and after seeing the banner, plaque, and photo, like most tourists after hours of prowling what I really want is a table in the shade at a sidewalk cafe, with an icy drink and a small salad. No chance.

Instead, I make do with a packaged ice cream from the Norval convenience store, which also carries the three Maud journals. I walk self-consciously down the street, facing the zooming traffic of Highway 7, and my attention is arrested by a poster of Anne of Green Gables. A hand-written sign in the shop window declares "Anne of Green Gables Books," but then I see another sign, "Sorry, We're Closed."

The next attraction is the Hollywood Tavern, or Hollywood House to locals. It happens to have shot up in significance lately, because it has burned down. Or rather, burned out, in what a local paper called a "suspicious fire." While the walls still stand, the windows are boarded up and the roof is a blackened mess. Weeks after the fire, the site still reeks of smoke.

My shock and dismay are boundless: I had been planning to visit Hollywood House as research for this article. It was there in Maud's day, even earlier; it was a stage hotel 140 years ago. I was even planning on attending one of the line-dancing nights, to imagine how Japanese tourists might like it. It might have been the perfect match: East meets West, all in the name of Anne. Luckily, a place nearby has stepped in to fill the need for linedancing.

The only other almost-local attraction is one that comes closest to satisfying the needs of Anne lovers. Outside the village is Crawford's, a food place with a bakery, a chocolate shop, a deli, and an area set up with inviting white cafe tables and chairs. Just what I'm looking for. Skimming over the menu, I note the cheering appearance of white wine, red wine, something vegetarian - but then I notice the dreadful sign "Sorry, We're Closed."

I pick up something from the deli section and, while paying, notice three stacks of the Montgomery journals. The only thing is, I'm thinking, since you'd have to have read the third volume to learn of Maud's connection to Norval, wouldn't you as a tourist want to buy something else? A straw hat with red braids is too Prince Edward Island, perhaps. What about a hat that would make you look like a Presbyterian minister's wife of the 1920s?

I sit in my broiling car in the treeless parking lot with a bottle of hand-crafted Jamaican-style ginger ale and a package of cheese-flavoured rice crackers, which taste like neither, but instead exactly like the bottom of a styrofoam drinking cup. Three women pull up in a car beside me and enter Crawford's. Four crackers later I am surprised to see them exit, no purchases in hand, only a few pamphlets. Then I notice their sandalled feet: red, and swollen from tourism. Like pilgrims of another age, they come on foot seeking proximity, but on this summer's day in Norval, there is neither cafe nor tavern nor church to offer rest to the weary followers of Maud.


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