The war at home

In this time of pandemics and quarantines, we’re all searching for different ways to grasp a bit of comfort and stability. Personally, I’ve been reading mysteries (they always find an answer by the end!), watching some very fluffy tv, and perhaps baking a bit more than I should. I never would have guessed that one of my quarantine highlights would be a virtual read-a-thon of a book about World War I. After all, aren’t we all craving fluff?

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But when I heard that Andrea McKenzie and Benjamin Lefebvre were launching a Rilla of Ingleside virtual read-a-thon on Facebook, I signed up immediately. Years ago, I raved here about their scholarly edition of Rilla, a book that most definitely rests in my top 10 list of favorite books of all time. This book shaped me as a historian in so many ways, and I couldn’t let an opportunity to revisit it with fans and scholars pass me by.

I will admit that I didn’t keep current with all the posts, and I don’t think I ever made a comment. But each dip into that world was delightful and helped feed my soul. Part of what made it so special is that they invited people from around the world to read a chapter on video. I found myself listening to the chapters while sewing masks or making cookies for no good reason. There were names I recognized back from the Kindred Spirits email list days. Names I knew from twitter and other bookish circles. There were some delightful accents to enjoy. People posed in front of their book shelves, full of Montgomery novels. They showed off their tattered 1990s editions of Rilla. Even though I sometimes found myself crying in the kitchen, it was just so healing. Those tears were for the community around these beloved books and the uncertainty we are all living in.

At this point in my life, I don’t know how many times I’ve read Rilla, But on this read, I felt the emotions in a way I never have before.  The relentless waiting for leaders to take action to stop senseless death. The daily dread of the news–but knowing you can’t ignore the news. The little bits of normalcy and humor that creep in when we least expect it–but most definitely need it! Wondering when, if ever, it will end. Being surprised at how time has sped by and crawled. I will never be able to read Rilla again without thinking about Covid-19. We are both fighting wars at home.

Diving back into L. M. Montgomery’s world was so comforting that I started a reread of all of her books in publication order as my bedtime reading. For some of these books, it’s probably been 20+ years since I’ve touched them, so the reread has been a delight.

When quarantine began in March, I wondered how far I’d get. At this point, I’m almost done with Emily Climbs, published in 1925. Eleven books down, nine to go. We’re only 4 months into this thing. Now I’m almost starting to wonder what to read when I finish.

My Feminist Winter, Part 2

Strong female character: check. World War I setting: check.  A little bit of romance: check. Suffrage movement: check. Honestly, for historical fiction, this is usually about all I need for a book to be a winner. It’s why I put Crossing Stones by Helen Frost on my to-read list so many years ago. But I deeply regret not getting to it sooner.

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This is a book in verse, in the vein of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (God, I love that book). Usually, that’s not a huge selling point for me. I read fast–I don’t pause and analyze and reflect the way you should with poetry. And I confess that when I started reading Crossing Stones, I was reading for plot, not the beauty of the language. It’s told from the perspective of three teenagers–Muriel, her best friend and neighbor Emma, and her brother Ollie. For some reason, about 50 pages in, I flipped to the back and noticed an author’s note on the form of the poetry. People–if you read this book, read the author’s note first! It completely changed the way I thought about the book. Suddenly, it made sense why Muriel’s poems were shaped so differently than Ollie’s and Emma’s. So, I slowed down and let the beautiful words wash right over me.

Muriel is a woman who just isn’t sure. She’s not sure about the war. She’s not sure she wants to be a homemaker. She heads to DC to pick up her Aunt Vera who has been picketing for suffrage at the White House, jailed, and in the middle of a hunger strike. She finds herself joining the movement and thinking about other options for her life besides farm life.

And then. there is the thread of her little sister getting influenza. Remember folks, it’s 1918.

A side note: I’m in the middle of reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It’s a little disturbing to read it in the midst of the worst flu season in years. And with the number killed and the horrible way they died, how do we not talk more about this moment in history?

Back to the story at hand: Muriel has just gotten back from DC, and she has a present for her little sister. She reads all of Anne of Green Gables at her sick sister’s bedside. And there is this moment that just brought tears to my eyes:

I stopped reading for a minute,

turned away, and she opened her eyes to ask

what happened next! I don’t know, Grace,

I’m reading it for the first time myself.

Mama said to wake her if there was any change,

but Grace insists, Keep reading, Muriel.

I think Anne really does like Gilbert, don’t you?

She keeps her eyes open, and I go on, as if

reading is breathing, and by reading I can

keep my sister breathing.

Honestly, it’s one of the best uses of another book in a book I’ve ever seen. But I may be biased since it’s Anne.

These are all characters that realize the world around them is changing, and they’re trying to figure out their place. I appreciated the hesitation and the fear and the questioning. Frost gracefully takes some of the big themes of 1917-1918 and weaves them together–suffrage, war, influenza, settlement houses. But it never feels forced. It’s easy enough to go to other sources to dig deeper on some of the topics, but not necessary. Her characterization is spot-on, and I never found myself thinking that Muriel was too modern.

I’ve always said that the story should come first in historical fiction, not the history. This is certainly a case where the words come before the history, but it still gives you plenty of history. I read this immediately after The Hired Girl and it was stunning how different the reading experience was. Refreshing, too. Frost hit all the right historical notes, but she also created deeply sympathetic characters–and to create them in so few words!

Definitely one of the best books I read last year. More of this, please.

Click here for My Feminist Winter, Part 1.