In celebration of Rilla

There are some stories that never quite let you go.  My love for Rilla of Ingleside has been mentioned here more than once.  That love led me to my senior thesis and, more recently, to my most recent publication on the Dallas homefront during WWI.  So is it any wonder that I was thrilled that Benjamin Lefebvre and Andrea McKenzie were coming out with a new edition of one of my favorite books?  And that I was also just a wee bit jealous?

9687998There are many, many things that thrill me about this book.  Finally, all your major questions sparked by the history in this book are answered within it!  The original text is restored, after having been “silently” cut decades ago.  And it’s just a pretty book.

But my biggest thrill is that I finally have proof that people besides me value this book and realize how important it is–to both literature and history.  When I was doing my research for the article on Dallas clubwomen during WWI, I knew I wanted to focus not on the extraordinary–the women who worked outside the home, went to France as nurses, or did any number of remarkable things.  No, I wanted to focus on what most women would have done–fit war work into existing lives.  Those lives were stretched, but not completely undone.  And as I wrote that paper, I desperately wanted to quote Rilla, though I just couldn’t quite justify it.

If I had to pick just one book to explain my whole thesis about kidlit history–that there is some history that is be found in children’s literature and can’t be found anywhere else, this book would be the one I would pick.  Primary sources on the emotions and daily lives of the women that watched and waited are hard to find.  We tend to document the extraordinary.  Though these women were living in extraordinary times, I don’t think they realized how much their lives were changing.

Montgomery knew she was telling the story of the masses of Canadian women that worked at home and waited.  She wrote “In my latest story, ‘Rilla of Ingleside,’ I have tried, as far as in me lies, to depict the fine and splendid way in which the girls of Canada reacted to the Great War–their bravery, patience and self-sacrifice.  The books is theirs in a sense in which none of my other books have been: for my other books werew written for anyone who might like to read them: but ‘Rilla’ was written for the girls of the great young land I love, whose destiny it will be their duty and privilege to shape and share.”  Lefebvre and McKenzie go on to say “Rilla of Ingleside thus pictures, as no other war novel of its time does, a uniquely Canadian perspectie about the women and families who battled to keep the home fires burning throughout this tumultuous era.”

Frankly, I can’t think of another novel, from any country, written so closely after the war that takes the time to talk about the home front.  So, I lift my glass to Montgomery for writing this wonderful book in the first place.  And I lift my glass to Benjamin Lefebvre and Andrea McKenzie for working so hard to put this book in a wider context and give it the attention it so richly deserves.

For now, United States readers have to order this book directly from Canada.  Here’s hoping that one day it will be easily available in the United States.  The good news is that the exchange rate is currently almost even.  Trust me–you need this book in your personal library.

For the to-read list

Wonderful, wonderful interview with Benjamin Lefebvre, one of the leading scholars on L. M. Montgomery and her work.  Not too long ago, he edited The Blythes Are Quoted, which is essentially her final manuscript that was published very differently from the way she envisioned.

He’s coming out with a new edition of Rilla of Ingleside, one of my all-time favorite books that is filled with all the great WWI historical details that I crave.  I love that they’re answering all those questions right in the same volume and can’t wait to check it out.  Isn’t it just beautiful?

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Highly recommend the article linked to above.  And check out his blog too!

I believe I have officially started my Christmas wish list. . .

Emotional history

Rilla of Ingleside

 

I finished my reread of Rilla of Ingleside the other night.  I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this book over the years, but it’s one that still gets me.  Every. Single. Time.

When I read, I’m not one to cry or even laugh out loud often.  I think part of it is that I read so quickly.  And for a long time, I rarely cried at movies.  Growing older has softened me up a bit, but I’m pretty sure Rilla was the first book that ever made me cry.  It may have been Walter’s death, but I’m also pretty sure it was the story of Dog Monday.

On this read, I teared up often.  When Jem enlisted.  When Jem came home and Dog Monday greeted him.  Strangely enough, not when Walter dies.  But the part that got me the most, the part where I had to reach over to my nightstand to find a kleenex, was when Bruce Meredith brought Anne the first mayflowers.  I can’t resist sharing the scene with you:

The mayflowers bloomed in the secret nooks of Rainbow Valley.  Rilla was watching for them.  Jem had once taken his mother the earliest mayflowers; Walter brought them to her when Jem was gone; last spring Shirley had sought them out for her; now, Rilla thought, she must take the boys’ place in this.  But before she had discovered any, Bruce Meredith came to Ingleside one twilight with his hands full of delicate pink sprays.  He stalked up the steps of the veranda and laid them on Mrs. Blythe’s lap.

“Because Shirley isn’t here to bring them,” he said in his funny, shy, blunt way.

“And you thought of this, you darling,” said Anne, her lips quivering, as she looked at the stocky, black-browed little chap, standing before her, with his hands thrust into his pockets.

“I wrote Jem today and told him not to worry ’bout you not getting your mayflowers,” said Bruce seriously, “’cause I’d see to that.  And I told him I would be ten pretty soon now, so it won’t be very long before I’ll be eighteen and then I’ll go to help him fight, and maybe let him come home for a rest while I took his place.”

So often, we grownups assume that children don’t really see the world around them.  I have long argued that children “get” a lot more than we give them credit for.  Bruce’s gesture and thoughtfulness were completely unexpected, but at ten, he definitely understands that this war has been going on for a while and there’s no sign of it ending.  And his willingness and confidence that he would go–in eight long years–just kills me. 

Though this is far from a perfect book, it’s the emotion of it all that made such an impact on my life.  You feel the ache and pain as the folks at home wait for news.  And though this book is largely about Rilla, it’s as much about Susan, the Blythe’s housekeeper.  I’ve always loved Susan, but I fell in love with her all over again in this read.  She went from only being concerned about her backyard to carefully studying the world situation.   I love that she kept asking how to pronounce these distant places as she struggled to keep track of troop movements.  As Dr. Blythe comments towards the end of the novel, “Susan, you’ve been a real brick.”

Part of the reason that kidlit history makes such an impact on our lives is this emotion.  There are so many wonderful stories in history–and there are also quite a few historians who, while fabulous researchers, can’t write in a way to attract a general audience.  Montgomery followed the war very closely–she agonized over the war news, as any reader of her published journals becomes keenly aware.  She began writing Rilla in March 1919–less than six months after armistice.  Though she never says it explicitly, I feel that she knew she was writing a history of the war years.  There is this journal entry, from March 1921:

Ewan said a letter had come from Stokes complaining that “Ingleside” was “too gloomy,” and wanting me to omit and tone down some of the shadows.  Also, subtly intimating that I had not “taffied up” the U.S. enough in regard to the war–this last being the real fault, though they did not like to say so bluntly.

Well, I didn’t and I won’t! 

In my opinion, Montgomery wrote one of the first histories of the war years.  She used her journals, she used first person accounts (many her own), she used news accounts to check her facts–she was a historian.  But I’m not sure how many see it as that.  All I know for sure is that if my first exposure to WWI had been in an average classroom, I wouldn’t be returning to it as a topic of interest over and over again. 

Have any of you had a similiar experience–where a book leads to a completely new interest? (historical or not!)

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?