A pair of adult siblings named Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who lead a very quiet life on a farm called Green Gables, decide to adopt a boy from an orphanage. And they're not doing it out of the goodness of their heart or any real desire to parent a child—they just want someone who can help Matthew with farm chores, since he's getting older.
With the casual tone of people who need to pick up a loaf of bread from the store, the Cuthberts ask a woman who is already travelling to the orphanage to pick up a boy for them. But the message gets lost in translation, and the woman leaves a girl to meet Matthew at the train station.
And not just any girl. They get Anne—spelled with an very important "e," she likes to point out—Shirley, a redheaded eleven-year-old who is obsessed with words, poetry, and beauty. Oh yeah: and she can't. stop. talking.
Both Cuthberts are startled at first. Anne is deeply sincere, but this eleven-year-old's long poetic speeches seem strange in the Cuthberts' quiet farm town of Avonlea, where big displays of emotion are not the norm. But Anne's uniqueness wins over Matthew and eventually, Marilla, who is also moved by Anne's history. (Anne has been treated as an unpaid servant, a caregiver for other people's children, her whole life.)
So after a rocky start (Anne's first act in Avonlea is to anger the town busybody, Mrs. Rachel Lynde), she becomes a part of the community. Anne falls in love with the beauty of the island, and renames many spots in town to make them sound more romantic. She makes a "bosom" (Anne-speak for "best") friend, her neighbor Diana Barry, and an enemy, a boy in her class named Gilbert Blythe, who insults her by comparing her hair to carrots.
Throughout her childhood, Anne can't seem stop getting into trouble. Half the time, it isn't even her fault…like when she gets Diana drunk because she mistakes wine for raspberry cordial (a concentrated syrup made of fruit, sugar, and water).
Naturally, Diana's mom's furious. She forbids the girls from seeing each other, so they're forced to change seats at school and limit their interaction to secret notes. But when Diana's baby sister comes down with croup and all the adults in town are at a political event, Anne whips out her mad childcare skillz and saves the baby's life.
Diana's mom asks Anne for forgiveness, and all's right in the world again…until about five minutes later when Anne outrages another Barry family member. Anne upsets Diana's great-aunt Josephine by jumping into the spare room bed without realizing that Josephine is sleeping there.
Thankfully Anne manages to win Josephine over with a fanciful apology that amuses her, and the two become friends.
Anne's other mishaps include:
Anne's been doing well in school just to rival Gilbert, but after the rescue incident, they both step up their game. When they're fifteen, they study hard for their entrance exam to teaching school and tie for first place. Anne has also gotten good at elocution (dramatic public speaking) and recites at a concert at a hotel before teaching school starts and wows everyone.
Anne has to board in a nearby town for teaching school, and instead of having fun being on her own, she plunges into a new battle with Gilbert: to graduate at the top of her class, with a gold medal and a scholarship to a local college. In the end, Gilbert gets the medal and Anne gets the scholarship—not a bad compromise, we'd say. And Marilla and Matthew are adorably proud at Anne's graduation. (Duh.)
Anne's triumph is short-lived though. (Here come the spoilers…can't say we didn't warn you.)
Right after they return to Green Gables, Matthew dies from a heart attack when he finds out the bank they've invested their money in has failed. Soon after, Marilla finds out that she'll go blind unless she stops straining her eyes with all the sewing and housework. In desperation, she decides to sell Green Gables.
But Anne has other ideas.
She gets Mr. Barry to rent the farm and gives up her scholarship so she can care for Marilla and teach at a school on the island. Gilbert's supposed to be the teacher at the Avonlea school, but when he hears about Anne's plan, he gives it up so she can teach there and live at home. In the end, Anne thanks Gilbert and they finally agree to be friends.