My girls’ school had their Anzac service on the last day of term, which made me think about Rilla of Ingleside. This novel is the last in the Anne of Green Gables series (although now that The Blythes Are Quoted is published I should say second last) and it is set during World War 1. It is a war novel, but from the perspective of the women left behind. It is fascinating (and heart breaking) because it was written right after the war (published in 1921) when the thought of another world war was inconceivable. There are many references to battles (Vimy Ridge, Courcelette) and also to things happening on the home front (day light savings, conscription, replacing the lawn with potatoes) and lots of sock knitting.
Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia (it does contain spoilers) …
Set almost a decade after Rainbow Valley, Europe is on the brink of the First World War, and Anne’s youngest daughter Rilla is an irrepressible almost-15-year-old, excited about her first adult party and blissfully unaware of the chaos that the Western world is about to enter. Her parents worry because Rilla seems not to have any ambition, is not interested in attending college, and is more concerned with having fun. (In an aside, it is revealed that Marilla has died; her date of death is not specified but Rilla states it was before she was old enough to know her very well.)
Once the Continent descends into war, Jem Blythe and Jerry Meredith promptly enlist, upsetting Anne, Nan, and Faith Meredith (who Rilla suspects is engaged to Jem). Rilla’s brother Walter, who is of age, does not enlist, ostensibly due to a recent bout with typhoid but truly because he fears the ugliness of war and death. He confides in Rilla that he feels he is a coward.
The enlisted boys report to Kingsport for training. Jem’s dog, Dog Monday, takes up a vigil at the Glen train station waiting for Jem to come back. Rilla’s siblings Nan, Di, and Walter return to Redmond College, and Shirley returns to Queen’s Academy, leaving Rilla anxiously alone at home with her parents, their spinster housekeeper Susan Baker, and Gertrude Oliver, a teacher who is boarding with the Blythes while her fiance reports to the front.
As the war drags on, Rilla matures, organizing the Junior Red Cross in her village. While collecting donations for the war effort, she comes across a house where a young mother has just died with her husband away at war, leaving no one to care for her two-week-old son. Rilla takes the sickly little boy back to Ingleside in a soup tureen, naming him “James Kitchener Anderson” after his father and Herbert Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War. Rilla’s father Gilbert challenges her to raise the war orphan, and although she doesn’t like babies at all, she rises to the occasion, eventually coming to love “Jims” as her own.
Rilla and her family pay anxious attention to all the war news as the conflict spreads and thousands die. Rilla grows much closer to Walter, who some townsfolk and fellow students have branded a slacker, an insult he feels deeply. Rilla feels that Walter finally regards her as a chum, not just as his little sister. Walter eventually does enlist, as does Rilla’s newfound love interest, Kenneth Ford (the son of Owen and Leslie Ford, who met in Anne’s House of Dreams), who asks her to promise she will not kiss anyone else until he returns.
As the war continues, Walter is killed in action at Courcelette. His death had been foreshadowed in the earlier book Anne of Ingleside (written years after this one). In Walter’s last letter to Rilla, written the day before his death, he tells her that he is no longer afraid, and believes it may be better for him to die than to go on living with his memories of war forever spoiling life’s beauty. Rilla gives the letter to Una Meredith, who Rilla suspects had been in love with Walter, though she had never spoken of it to either of them.
Anne’s youngest son, Shirley, comes of age and immediately joins the flying corps. Jerry Meredith is wounded at Vimy Ridge, and in early May 1918, Jem is reported wounded and missing following a trench raid. The Blythes spend nearly five months not knowing Jem’s fate until they finally receive a telegram from him: he had been taken prisoner in Germany, but eventually escaped to Holland and is now proceeding to England for medical treatment.
When the war finally ends, the rest of the boys from Glen St. Mary return home. Mary Vance and Miller Douglas announce plans to marry, with Miller deciding to pursue a career in Mr. Flagg’s store after losing a leg in the war. Jem returns on the afternoon train and is met by a joyful Dog Monday. Jims’ father returns with a young English bride, and takes Jims to live with them nearby; Rilla is glad she can still remain part of Jims’ life.
Life after war resumes. Jem plans to return to college, since he and Faith cannot be married until he finishes studying medicine. Faith, Nan, and Diana plan to teach school, while Jerry, Carl, and Shirley will return to Redmond, along with Una, who plans to take a Household Science course.
Finally, Kenneth returns home and proposes to Rilla with the question “Is it Rilla-my-Rilla?” — to which Rilla lisps, “Yeth.”
This is now considered to be a children’s book, but Montgomery wrote it for an adult audience and although it is not gritty or violent there is death, despair and grief. Having said that, there are lighter moments as well. In my opinion this is one of Montgomery’s best and it is worth reading for the social history alone. There are several references to god and god being on the side of the allies, which I found quite interesting because I know Montgomery (from reading her journals) had lost her faith and yet she wrote so convincingly. Another thing, which just makes me sad, is how the characters talk about creating a new world where wars can never happen again and yet I know that World War Two is going to happen and Rilla might have to send her sons to war.
I just want to mention I read this on my Kindle (this version)
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