Here’s a guest posting from the lovely Sarah, my Resident Historian and Chief Political Correspondent.
Stuff Books Taught Me – War is Hell
That title is a bit sensationalistic, and not entirely accurate. But I’m going to be writing about the first book that haunted me, that made me bawl, that really stimulated my interest in Canadian history (especially the First World War). Surprisingly – it’s Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the Anne of Green Gables series by LM Montgomery.
WARNING: I am about to spoil the plot of this book. It was published almost 90 years ago, though, so you’ve had your chance to read it. Plus, certain plot points are vital to the life lesson the book imparted. You have been warned.
RoI is the 8th book in the series chronologically, though the 6th one written (Maud wrote the 4th and 6th books – Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne of Ingleside, respectively – during the 1930s due to pressure from her publisher. They fill in gaps in the Anne narrative). It focuses on Anne and Gilbert’s youngest daughter, Bertha Marilla Blythe, who is 15 as the novel opens in August of 1914. It follows the Blythes through the entire war until beyond the Armistice, ending in early 1919 when Rilla is about to turn 20. It is far more serious in tone than any of the other books in the series and is painstakingly accurate with respect to dates and battles of WWI. This tone shift and accuracy are deliberate; I’ve since read Maud’s published personal diaries and she not only recorded these events with the focus of an archivist, she also mined her personal writings for components of the novel.
RoI is the only Canadian novel about WWI on the homefront written by a contemporary author. And is it ever sad. All the boys you’ve grown to love in the previous novels head off to war. Virtually all are injured or worse. It’s horribly realistic, and that’s the worst part. And Anne’s son Walter, the beautiful dreamer who is the best friend and older brother of the protagonist, is killed in the Battle of the Somme.
So, it’s the summer of 1987. I’m nearly 10, and I am flying through the Anne series. I catch a reference to a grave marker in the 6th book (the last one written) but it makes no sense at the time. Into Rilla I plod. She’s flighty and 15 and a bit boy-crazy; she’s not so much older or different than I am. She idolizes her older brothers has a crush on one of their friends. She, and all those around her, have no idea of the emotional upheaval that will be contained in the subsequent four years.
Walter, one of her older brothers, has just survived a horrible case of Scarlet Fever and is unable to enlist. He has taken a leave of absence from University (he’s an author and he’s becoming successful) to convalesce and over this time Rilla and he (and the reader) become close. Circumstances and his influence transform self-indulgent Rilla into a sensitive and selfless woman. Walter, an old soul with an incredible imagination, harbours no belief in the glory of war. He knows that it’ll be hell on earth and he’s TERRIFIED. He’s also thankful that he’s unable to fight and is shamed at the admission. But, as time goes on and the war continues, he realizes that he must enlist. Rilla (and the reader) spend the novel hoping that he won’t have to, hoping he won’t go, then hoping he’ll be alright. All of this is shattered in the summer of 1916 when he is killed. Then, Rilla receives a letter from him, written the night before his final battle; he’d sensed that the next day would be his last. Dude. DUDE. I am getting choked up just thinking about it, over 20 years since the first time I read it.
This was the first time a character I’d loved had died (well, besides Matthew in AoGG, but he was old). A character with whom I’d identified, one who had such amazing potential and, had he lived, who would have gone on to do incredible things. I remember being gobsmacked when I first read those chapters, then absolutely bawling. It took me a good day or so before I could steel myself to pick up the book and go on.
The rest of the book is excellent; Rilla’s transformation is a triumph. It’s filled with moments of humour and happiness, and I have read it more times than I can count. But Maud’s intention – to make the horrors and loss of war real to readers – sure resonated with me. The death of fictional Walter represented the all too real loss of tens of thousands of other young Canadians, full of potential and greatly loved. What a cruel, vicious waste. Reading about WWI is still terribly painful for me, but I feel compelled to do so in order to pay tribute to these kids. And kids they were – when I visited Ypres at the age of 24, NOT ONE person in the Ramparts cemetery was older than me when they died.
Other books have affected me, have made me sob (HPatDH, I’m looking at you for a recent example) but every time one does I think back to Rilla. And say a little prayer for all the Walters lost on both sides of conflicts.
Image source: Wikipedia
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