Opening Shots. . .

For years now, I’ve had a strong interest in World War I.  Not the battles so much, but the social changes surrounding the Great War.  And I can place the blame firmly on Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery, since I certainly didn’t learn much about WWI in school.

I must have read Rilla for the first time shortly before the first Gulf War, because I certainly remember making all kinds of comparisons in my head about the two.  In my mind, this was the smallish thing that was going to turn into WWIII.  In a way, it almost has, since we’re still embroiled in the Middle East (but that’s all for someone else’s blog).

As I became more interested in history, I was always (and continue to be) surprised at how little mention is made of WWI in American history classes.  I know that much of this is because we really weren’t involved for very long, and a generation of young men wasn’t wiped out.  But I had grown up on Rilla, and it seemed to me that this was the war that had changed everything–when the 20th century had truly begun.  I remember being highly incensed during my US since 1875 class in college in which we spent about 15 minutes on WWI.  I made up for it later though, with my thesis that used the war years a centerpoint.  Since then, I’ve also done some research on Dallas clubwomen and their efforts during WWI.

The other night, I got out Rilla again, for the first time in years.  It was time to revisit PEI and figure out why I had never been able to let go of my interest in this war. 

For those that aren’t familiar with Rilla, this is the final book (chronologically, not the final book published) in the Anne series.  Though Anne is certainly in it, it’s really about Rilla and coming of age during the war years.  Somehow it’s always felt like a separate book from the rest of the Anne series, perhaps because there is such intrusion by the “real” world on the almost too perfect world of Avonlea and Glen St. Mary.

In fact, I was surprised at how quickly the war was mentioned.  On page 2: “There was a big, black headline on the front page of the Enterprise, stating that some Archduke Ferdinand or other had been assassinated at a place bearing the weird name of Sarajevo, but Susan tarried not over uninteresting, immaterial stuff like that; she was in quest of of something really vital.  Oh, here it was–“Jottings from Glen St. Mary.”  Ferdinand was killed on June 28, 1914. 

In the following pages, there is much foreshadowing about what is to come.  Gertrude Oliver, a family friend, has a terrifying dream that involves waves of blood lapping at the Ingleside porch.  But Rilla is a teenager, and much more focused on the possibilities of her first real dance and being considered a real “grown up.” 

I’ve always thought the scene where everyone learns that England declares war on Germany would make an excellent opening for a movie (we will not discuss the abomination of the 3rd Anne movie, set during WWI, except to say it was a truly horrible Anne movie and an almost equally bad WWI movie.  I might have thrown things at my television).  The scene is set at a lighthouse–crowds of young people are dancing the night away.  It’s Rilla’s first party, and she’s asked to dance over and over again, including by someone she just might have a long-time crush on.  And then: “There was a little disturbance among a group of boys crowded around the door; a young fellow pushed through and halted on the threshold, looking about him rather sombrely. . . . ‘Ask him —  ask him,’ she said feverishly to Allan Daly.  But somebody else had already asked him.  The room grew very silent all at once.  Outside the fiddler had stopped for a rest and there was silence there too.  Afar off they heard the low moan of the gulf–the presage of a storm already on its way up the Atlantic.  A girl’s laugh drifted up from the rocks and died away as if frightened out of existence by the sudden stillness.  ‘England declared war on Germany today,’ said Jack Elliot slowly.  ‘The news came by wire just as a I left town.'” 

And just like that, everything changes.  Some are thrilled at the prospect of war, others are terrified at what it could mean.  Many think that it will last just a few months.  Walter, Rilla’s brother argues: “Do you think a war for which Germany has been preparing for twenty years will be over in a few weeks?” said Walter passionately.  ‘This isn’t a paltry struggle in a Balkan corner, Harvey.  It is a death grapple.  Germany comes to conquer or die.”

In just a few pages, Montgomery outlines all the major themes that I’ve read over and over in my study of WWI–no one realizing how prepared Germany is and how unprepared England and France are.  Surprise that war is even possible in such a “modern” era.  Gender roles that emerge during war time.  And thus, I got hooked.

I’ll be spending some time on WWI in the coming weeks, looking at Rilla, but also looking at the final two books in the Betsy-Tacy series.  Are there any other children’s books that use WWI as a backdrop?

17 thoughts on “Opening Shots. . .

  1. I love “Rilla.” I didn’t notice as a child reader, but as an adult I’ve come to appreciate how unusual it is in its detailed portrayal of the home front. I’m looking forward to more of your Rilla & WWI posts. I will have to think a bit more to see if I can come up with other kidlit WWI titles. WWII titles come more readily to mind for me, for example, one of my favourites, Noel Streatfeild’s “When the Siren Wailed.”

    • When I worked on my paper on clubwomen and WWI, I couldn’t stop thinking of Rilla–but there wasn’t a good way to integrate the two. I think it’s one of the best homefront books I’ve ever read–and honestly, a lot more people experienced the homefront than the front lines.

  2. All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown is the book in which Jules, Ella’s boyfriend, goes overseas to fight in WWI. There are some wonderful scenes of the war experience in New York City, and lots of knitting for soldiers.

    I knew so little about WWI as a child, though, that when I first read this book I don’t think I understood clearly what time period or war it was talking about. WWII was very familiar to me, because both my grandfathers had fought in the war and my grandmothers had lived through it, but I never knew much about WWI. I became familiar with it mainly through reading Rilla and Betsy; later I read Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series for adults, which includes quite a bit about WWI.

    • The other AoaKF books aren’t as engrained in my memory as the first one–will have to pull that one out and add to the stack as well.

  3. I would have said the three same books. I think we did cover WWI in American History class, but certainly not as well as WWII. I also remember the assassination of the Archduke being mentioned during the Sarajevo Olympics.

    The only other book I can think of right now is Mrs. Mike, in which the war is fairly peripheral, but the flu epidemic has a big impact. I did find something on Google Books, but I haven’t read the books mentioned.

    • Ooohh–I haven’t read that, and it looks like it meets the criteria (plus, Seredy was a nurse during WWI). Just requested it from the library.

  4. This is a period I have collected for years, partly influenced by Rilla but also by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (book and PBS series), although there is definitely less written than on WWII. One important difference between Rilla and US books set during this period is that because Canada was part of England it got into the war earlier and was used to absorbing its patriotism from England.

    I am missing book 1 in the Red Cross Girls series but in book 2 (published in 1916) four American girls who set sail to nurse with the Red Cross overseas have become close friends: Eugenia, a stern and forbidding girl from New England; Mildred, the daughter of a distinguished NY judge; Nona, daughter of a Confederate general from Charleston; and Barbara, petite and energetic (someone quotes Rupert Brooke to her – Brooke died in 1915 but he was already well known as a poet and I believe his father published a collection of his war poetry almost immediately, which became a bestseller – still, I am a bit surprised to have Margaret Vandercook mention him).

    You might try After the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski. There is a Jean Little that is set during the war, His Banner over Me, although there is a lot besides WWI going on. Pictures, 1918 by Jeannette Ingold and Tree by Leaf by Cynthia Voight are two I own but have not yet read (in a box somewhere, I hope).

    Most of my favorites are English books. The second Flambards book, The Edge of the Cloud, is one of my favorites but should not be read before reading Flambards. Remembrance by Theresa Breslin. Ruth Elwin Harris’ Quantock series (book one is called Sarah’s Story in the US). The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick.

    Good luck!

  5. The first books that came to my mind were the last two in Norma Johnston’s Keeping Days series, A Nice Girl Like You and Myself and I, in which the war is almost as central as it is to Rilla.

    • Aren’t the Keeping Days books modern historical fiction? If so, they technically don’t qualify for the whole contemporary/semi-autobiographical focus (though I will probably have to read them!)

      • Oh, yes, they were written in the seventies and eighties, based partly on the author’s family and partly on Betsy-Tacy (she said snarkily), but I just mention them in response to “other children’s books that use WWI as a backdrop”.

  6. “Rllla of Ingleside” is definitely one of LMM’s most powerful books. I didn’t discover LMM’s fiction until I was an adult but after reading my way through all of them, I was especially taken by ROI. I think that one reason for its compelling narrative is that a lot of the war “news” in the book and the characters’ reactions to it are taken directly from LMM’s journals (Vol. II). LMM was more like Gertrude Oliver than any of the other characters, but the connection between her real-life experiences and Rilla’s wartime life is strong. The same volume of her journals contains a heartbreaking account of the stillbirth of her second child. This account became the basis for the death of Anne’s first child in “Anne’s House of Dreams.”

    Sorry for jumping in unannounced, but I love what you’re doing here, Melissa. Thank you!

    • I was planning on pulling out the journals at some point. LMM should be getting so much more attention from historians because of her amazing journals. Rilla meant so much more to me after reading her journals and her anguish over the war news.

  7. Dorothy Canfield Fisher set “The Deepening Stream” during WWI. It isn’t a children’s book, but the book is based on her life and it is absolutely fascinating. I’ll try and think of others.

  8. Pingback: In celebration of Rilla « KidLit History

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