Who is Rilla Blythe?
You may not have heard of Rilla Blythe, but you should have. Rilla of Ingleside is the final novel (not including short stories) in the series that starts with Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. If you only know Anne from the movies, you have been missing a lot. Not only should you read the first titular novel in the series to meet Anne, but you need to read the entire series, concluding with Rilla. Rilla (named after Marilla who adopted the orphan Anne in book one) is the youngest daughter of the large family that Gilbert and Anne’s unwavering affection for each other produced. The daughter of a now well established community doctor who is well known outside that community, Rilla has watched all her siblings grow up and can hardly wait for it to be her turn. That time seems to have finally arrived as the book starts and Rilla is in her mid-teens and now has an almost (she hopes soon to be more than almost) boyfriend. However, fate plays a nasty trick on Rilla. The world she and her siblings grew up in is being destroyed, eaten by a Great War half the world away. The novel follows Rilla’s journey into womanhood as the war rages overseas and strikes at her own family.
Best Homefront Novel of World War I
Since I read Rilla for the first time I’ve always held that it was the best World War I homefront novel and maybe the best homefront novel period. It does a great job of showing us that the homefront was an actual front in the war which was completely mobilized to support the troops on the front lines. I was amazed to find echos of my own family stories of things like sending of feathers to accuse someone of cowardice repeated in the pages and just as true in PEI as Iowa. The Edwardian era through World War I, the peace conference, and the ensuing Influenza Epidemic was a very unique time in history with its own unique mindset and one that has helped create a lot of the world as we know it today. They had good points like truly believing they could make a better world and the incredible patriotism and working as a team mindset and bad points like the terrible prejudice against those different in any way that all too often exploded into threats and violence. Today, except for the Titanic, this era all seems forgotten. Its memory has dropped out of popular culture, which is really not a good thing because it could help us understand so much about ourselves.
On a personal note, somehow I never “did the math” and realized that the dates given mean that Rilla Blythe was born in 1900. In other words she was exactly the same age as my great-grandmother who I called Nannie (she’s the one pictured in this post). Now I was the oldest cousin of my generation daughter of the oldest cousin of hers so most of my cousins can’t the say the same, but I knew Nannie. We saw her and talked to her several times a week and she didn’t die until I was in junior high. So that’s how close all this is. If Rilla had been real, I could have known her. She would have gone on to experience the different events my great-grandmother did. When pop culture does address World War I, it’s as a world apart (look at the funny clothes, the strange dances, the different looking cars), but really it’s closer than you think. I could have known Rilla for years as an old person that’s how close World War I was.
Anniversaries of big wars used to be a sure attention getter. Somehow that has been falling out of our culture. Attendance at the big Civil War Anniversary Memorials 150 years after it was fought (1861-1865) has been down across the board compared to those from the 125th anniversaries. The anniversaries from the War of 1812 (200 years, 1810-1815) and World War II (50 years, 1939-1945 Europe, Asia, Africa and Canada, 1941-1945 US) have barely been recognized at all.
World War I was a little off schedule compared to the pattern of other wars. It was in the second half of its decade, 1914-1918 Europe and Canada, 1917-1918 US. So remembrances are just starting now, but I hope World War I will be better brought to light by the anniversary dates than the other conflicts have fared. So in honor of the approaching anniversaries read Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery, watch events unfold at Mental Floss, and like the Facebook page for the World War I National Museum in Kansas City, Missouri or better yet plan a visit.
Podcast Examines Rilla and the War
Below is a recent podcast that is making the rounds. The host offers her analysis of how Montgomery reflects World War I and offered up her entire Anne world in support of the cause, especially in Rilla of Ingleside (although she might have added Montgomery displays a similar tendency in Rainbow Valley the novel right before Rilla in the series which is set in the Pre-War Period, but clearly written with knowledge of the war to come, it was actually written after Rilla). It’s worth a listen.
The link is to the “Footnoting History Podcast” page. From there it gives you two different options to download and play, but not to stream directly from the site.
1. No one going in believes the war will last longer than a few months.
2. Over 400,000 Canadians served over seas in World War I because they still saw themselves as part of the British Empire and that was the popular decision.
3. Women started Red Crosses, ripped cloth, knitted hats, and socks, created care packages, 4,000 served as nurses overseas.
4. Issues of Pacifism and Cowardice – Ideas common that it was selfish and cowardly not to serve. Depicted public pressure to serve and publicly promote patriotism and the war.
5. The Causes – Kaiser as cause, but also lofty sentiments that the war and self-sacrifice and blood of millions will pave the way to a better new world. This idealized view of the world was widespread and sadly ultimately unfulfilled.
“When our women fail in courage, should our men be fearless still.” – Unnamed quote. Anyone recognize it?
The host Elizabeth, suggests two more titles to learn about World War I.
Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography by Robert Graves (Note: In looking up the link I discovered this is the same Robert Graves who wrote I, Claudius, so even though I haven’t read Good-Bye to All That, it must be good.)
- Find more specifically about Montgomery and World War I at LM Montgomery Literary Society.
- I would also suggest taking a look at the gift shop of the National World War I Memorial. They keep a complete list of books still in print, although sadly a lot of good titles are now out of print.
UPDATED May 12 2016: I was referring someone to this post and noticed a typo which I fixed and updated to my current signature block.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.