Emily Starr 4ever

I am rereading Emily of New Moon because of Russian Doll.

If you’ve watched or are watching Russian Doll on Netflix you will probably understand the reference. If you’re not, well first off you SHOULD because it’s amazing, and next off, well… I don’t want to spoil it at all in case you watch it (which you should) but the main character makes reference to the book a few times over the course of the first season. And while Nadia, the main character,  is not the most optimal person to aspire to be, as soon as she mentioned Emily of New Moon, I definitely wanted to be her friend. (Ok fine, I loved her and all her flaws anyway, but the Emily reference put it way over the edge.)

There have been so many instances in pop culture, movies, TV where characters claim to love or hate books and those choices have resonated with me but this is the first time I’ve felt it viscerally. For real.

I spent a lot of time during my childhood and youth in the Barton branch of the Hamilton Public Library. I absolutely loved it there. My mum took my brother and me pretty regularly and then of course when I was old enough to go by myself, I went every opportunity I could, starting when I was around 8 years old or so because it was 1975 and obviously if you could walk, you could get yourself to wherever you needed to be, without parental supervision. (One day I will write a post about taking my younger brother and some of the other neighbourhood urchins to see the movie The Hindenburg because that was totally age-appropriate.) But back to the library. I would sometimes go with friends, but I mostly went on my own and I would stay as long as I possibly could.

In typical 1970s childhood fashion, I was required to be home when the streetlights came on. Once after browsing in the children’s section, I had signed out a few books and then another one – a teen book, in the teen section, scandalous! – caught my eye so I started reading it and before I knew it it was dark, the streetlights had been on for a while and I had to bike home alone, completely freaked out. 42 years later and I still remember that the book that had me captivated/terrified was Are You in the House Alone? and I was convinced that the killer was after me as I biked as fast as I could along Barton Street to home. Honestly, every book for young adults in the 1970s was either terrifying or about sex. Which to be fair was also terrifying at the time.

But I didn’t find Emily at the branch, I found her at the main library downtown. If you know Hamilton you know that the Central Library is a massively modern (well modern in 1980) structure with a lot of glass and concrete. It’s a fantastic building and I love it so much. But, if you are of a certain age, you will also know that the earlier Central branch was at Main St. and MacNab St. (it’s now a courthouse) beside what used to be the Canadian Football Hall of Fame – and that is where I found Emily.

On a rainy early summer evening, possibly the same summer as the Are You in the House Alone? experience, I went downtown with some older kids from our street. We had taken the bus downtown specifically to go to this library, I remember that because I guess we were that cool. And I also remember wondering if kids were even allowed in this formidable place. I was definitely nervous; the building was big and dark and very, very different from the bright, windowed, one level branch library I loved so dearly. But walking in was a revelation. It was much brighter than I had expected, the facade had always seemed gloomy – masterful but gloomy all the same. The main floor was massive – the building itself is quite large, although when I pass it, as I do daily now, on my way home from work, it seems a little less gigantic than it did when I was 11. The floors were cool marble, and there were two wide marble staircases that dazzled. And there was, in fact, a children’s area. The paperback racks spun quietly and as I browsed, a thick book caught my eye. I recognized the author, but the cover seemed more modern than something written by L.M. Montgomery should have been which didn’t make a lot of sense but then it was the 70s amirite? So I found a place to sit while my friends wandered around and I started reading and it was SAD, friends. Like really sad. Before we even left the library to head home I was completely hooked and immediately transported to Emily’s lonely world, so I signed it out. Nervously because I wasn’t sure my library card would even work at this big, impressive library. But it did, and I took Emily home.

This cover! I mean, how could I have left it there?

I loved her right from the start. I loved her relationship with her father and her relationship with nature. I loved the fact that she composed descriptions and elaborate events in her head – most of which involved her dying pitifully and tragically and everyone in her life being super sorry that they were mean to her now that she’s dead, which is a thing that I also did when I was 12 (it is probably a thing  a lot of 12-year old highly dramatic kids do to be fair) and then when she had some actual paper she wrote these scenarios down (which is also a thing I did.) I especially loved the letters she wrote to her dead father which act as a kind of diary for her, and in which she pours out her heart dramatically about her experiences living at New Moon with her aunts and cousin. Emily is so fucking emo, you guys, it’s amazing.

In Russian Doll, Nadia searches for her own copy of Emily of New Moon for reasons (again, which I won’t spoil) and when a friend tells her did you know it’s the same author as Anne of Green Gables, Nadia says, “Everyone loves Anne but I like Emily. She’s dark.” And Emily is dark – so dark – and a little bit extra. She has a sort of intuition, a second sight kind of thing that includes visits from The Flash (not that one) and a kind of spooky understanding of people, which is and has always been my total jam. And Emily feels things deeply – so very deeply – but she can also make adults a little afraid of her, and who doesn’t want that power as an overly dramatic preteen? In short, Emily was and continues to be everything to me.

So I’m glad Russian Doll reminded me how much I loved the Emily books, and how much I love them still. I’m not sure I’ll go on to reread the others in the Emily series, but New Moon will always be a favourite and it, like the library where I found Emily and the night I found Emily, will always be a treasured memory. It was more than 40 years ago but sometimes it feels like it was just last summer. I have a lot of amazing childhood memories and I will always be so grateful that so many of them revolve around books and libraries.

 

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