This is an unusual book — a little piece of history, really. It’s one of the only contemporary accounts of World War I published by a woman. In many ways, the story in and around this book is sad.
L.M. Montgomery’s real life was an unhappy one. Like Anne, she was raised by old folks on a farm. Unlike Anne, her life sucked (hence the escapism of her novels). When Anne of Green Gables became an international hit in 1908, you’d think that Montgomery would have been on velvet forever, but she was an old maid for a good long time despite being rich and famous…and then marriage was even worse. And then, there was a world war that consumed the lives of millions.
Not even Anne’s life could be untouched by the Great War. Following the great narrative rule that Only Unmarried Girls Can Be Heroines, Rilla of Ingleside (full text) tells the family story from the perspective of Anne’s youngest child, Rilla. The story starts on the day a newspaper carries the seemingly irrelevant news that Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated.
First one brother enlists, then another, then another. This is a story about the home front, and there is nothing escapist about it. The wheel of the year will turn 5 grueling times before Rilla comes out the other side. Day after day, Rilla waits for news of Paris and Verdun, Sommes and mustard gas. The war is as exhausting on the home front as it is in the trenches of Europe. It’s just Canada, but able-bodied men who don’t enlist are sent white feathers in the mail. Women knit socks for the soldiers and help bring in the harvest. People have scathing things to say about Woodrow Wilson, sitting it out in the U.S. (“with its mixed population”). There’s a political referendum on conscription, and although Canadian women do not yet have suffrage, every woman who has a husband or brother or son overseas can vote in the election.
Every day for 5 years, there is nothing but war. It’s shaming to read about the intensity with which civilians committed to WWI, when we are in Iraq and Afghanistan and you’d never know the difference.
The truly sad part is that Montgomery lived to see the beginning of WWII. She died in 1942, which one granddaughter described as suicide. In Rilla, there is much discussion about why the war is happening. In letters home, the boys say that they are fighting for Rilla and their own sweet childhoods — they are fighting to keep the future safe for innocence. People talk about how everything that matters has always been paid for in blood, and that this generation is paying for a great gift in the next generation. It must have cut to the core when Germany took Belgium a second time.