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?