L.M. Montgomery was the favourite author of my childhood. I owned every book she ever wrote and read and reread those poor paperbacks until their spines were bent and broken and worn. But when I was younger, there was one book of the Anne series that tended to lie lonesome and dusty and almost pristine on my shelf: Rilla of Ingleside. Most of the Anne books are sweet and in some sense unchallenging as we watch the beautiful,spirited, and entertaining girl gain wisdom and poise. But Rilla is an abrupt shift. It is a story about war, about the women who are left behind and must deal each day with the terrible fear that the men they love will never come home. It is a coming-of-age story, but rather than tell the story of an orphan finding a home, it shows us how the horrors of war, even when taking place continents away, can reshape a vain, selfish child into a woman. In fact, I think that reason that it lay forlorn on my shelf is why, looking back, it is now one of my favorite Montgomery books: it invokes a pathos of which not even the author herself was fully aware when she wrote it.
While it takes place an ocean away from battle on peaceful Prince Edward Island, Rilla of Ingleside is a book about war, and gave the unwilling childish me a new and painful perspective on the multitude of ways that war causes suffering. The women who are left at home must wave their men off with a smile and then wait and wait and wait for news, good or bad, from the front. They are stifled by helplessness, trapped by anxiety, and yet almost every practical action is removed from them. They must wait, taking over the village duties from the men who have left, and, powerless to protect the ones they love, must depend on uncertain fate for their survival. The story is told from the perspective of Rilla, who we meet before the war begins. Rilla is initially a vain, selfish, shallow, and thoroughly unlikable character, a girl who spends $25 on a hat during wartime because it matches her complexion, and who sees the war as romantic and exciting. But as the war grinds on and the casualties mount, Rilla is forced out of her easy self-satisfaction. She is forced to take on previously unthinkable roles and, as the story proceeds, she begins to welcome them so that she can contribute, in however small a way, to the cause.
The story is deeply personal and the emotion, the sheer weary agony, is palpable throughout. LMM went through the war and watched the men of her family come home with hideous injuries and haunted eyes, and waited for some who would never leave those faraway fields.But for me the saddest part, and the reason why I avoided it as a child, is not LMM's pain but her hope. Montgomery's earnest faith in the righteousness of the cause, her optimism that this was truly a war to end all wars, is palpable throughout the book. She and her characters believe wholeheartedly in all of the propaganda (including the Belgian babies on pikes) and see themselves as battling pure unadulterated evil. When the Allies eventually succeed, they truly think that they have caused the good to triumph in an epic struggle for the world's very soul. And yet I as the reader was fully aware that this ugly and futile conflict would only sow the seeds for even greater atrocities. Montgomery's staunch belief that all those sacrifices meant something and achieved something is physically painful to a reader with knowledge of the fruitlessness of the battle. Every time I even think of this book, I am struck anew by the courage of the men who fought and died and the pathos that their deaths eventually meant so little. The book, with its unacknowledged irony of a war that begot a war, weighed on me so heavily that even now, years later, I still remember the details of it vividly without the need to reopen it. Although I'll never find this a happy book, its power is so great that I have finally acknowledged its place as one of LMM's greatest books.