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Posts Tagged ‘Rilla of Ingleside’

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I’ve been thinking about Rilla Blythe lately.

Rilla is Anne Shirley Blythe’s youngest daughter, the last of the six children who grew up at Ingleside in the golden years before World War I. In August 1914, she’s nearly fifteen: pretty, pampered, a little spoiled, but still sweet. She’s never had to do many disagreeable things, apart from the occasional household chore. But when war erupts in Europe, it upends her entire world.

Rilla of Ingleside is the story of how the women of Ingleside – Rilla, Anne, their faithful cook-housekeeper Susan, and Miss Oliver, the local schoolteacher – grit their way through the dark days of war. It’s one of the lesser-known Anne books, but it’s one of my favorites. I’ve read it a dozen times, and I love it so much.

As I make my way through both winter and the job hunt, a few lines from Rilla’s story keep coming back to me.

“I finished my sixth pair of socks today,” Rilla writes in her diary one evening. “With the first three I got Susan to set the heel for me. Then I thought that was a bit of shirking, so I learned to do it myself. I hate it – but I have done so many things I hate since 4th of August [when war was declared] that one more or less doesn’t make any difference.”

When war comes, both Susan and Rilla resolve, separately but with similar motivations, to be “as brave and heroic and unselfish” as they can be. Rilla’s declaration comes with italics and drama (she is fifteen, after all); Susan’s comes with a plain, old-fashioned sense of duty. They, and the entire village of Glen St. Mary, spend the next four years adjusting to new realities and, in the face of tragedy, simply doing what must be done.

They are no saints: they get frustrated, tired and worn down, and Rilla shares her troubles with the reader as she blows off steam in her diary. Even Miss Oliver says one day, in a rare moment of desperation, “There’s nothing heroic about me today. I’ve slumped.” But they always pick up courage and go on, helped in no small measure by letters from their boys at the front, and by one another.

I am in the middle of a few long, hard struggles, notably winter (we are now in the grit-your-teeth phase) and the continuing job hunt. I have to do a lot of things I’d rather not do, these days. But often, thinking about Rilla and her umpteen pairs of socks (and the many other tasks of wartime) helps me pluck up a bit of gumption to keep going. As she says to herself on a particularly difficult evening, “I must stay here and see things through.”

I’ve written often about how my fictional heroines keep me company or inspire me when things are rough. Do you have any fictional characters (or good words in general) that you draw on when you need wisdom or strength?

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When I was a kid, I read a lot of stories set during World War II. I read the Molly books, part of the American Girls series, which began in 1944 and traced Molly’s life through the last year of the war. I remember the Victory Garden her mother grew, the homemade Halloween hula-girl costumes (worn with sweaters because the night was chilly), the patriotic Christmas tree, the English girl , Emily, who came to stay with Molly’s family.

A little later, I read Number the Stars (which still makes me cry), The Diary of Anne Frank and others. World War II loomed large in my perception of American and world history – maybe because the U.S. entered it earlier and was involved for longer than it was in World War I.

I also read lots of stories set during the Civil War, the Great Depression, the “pioneer days” (a la Laura Ingalls Wilder and Janette Oke), and set in more modern times, like Nancy Drew, The Baby-Sitters Club and others. But for some reason, I don’t remember many stories set during or after World War I.

Until lately. My reading and viewing material this winter has included several stories set at the turn of the 20th century, during the First World War or amid its aftermath – Rilla of Ingleside, Downton Abbey, Maisie Dobbs. Somehow I’d missed an important piece of my literary education – the war known as the Great War before it was the “first” one, which came after years of belief – almost laughable to me now – that there would never be another war. Even the earlier books in the Anne of Green Gables series echo this sentiment; Anne says, “It seems so strange to read over the stories of those old wars…things that can never happen again.” (And Gertrude Oliver, in Rilla of Ingleside, sees the other side of the coin. About a Wordworth poem, she remarks, “Its classic calm and repose and the beauty of the lines seem to belong to another planet, and to have as little to do with the present world-welter as the evening star.”)

We in the 21st century have plunged from a century marked by world wars into one marked by many smaller wars, with a multitude of voices disagreeing about our country’s proper role in each one. The news of one war doesn’t envelop everyone’s lives, the way it did during both World War I and World War II. And it’s certainly not as though we don’t expect conflict. It’s all around us – in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places – most recently Tunisia and then Egypt.

I’m often astonished at the naivete of the characters in World War I-era stories – do they really think the war will be over by Christmas? Don’t they see that this conflict will change their lives forever? But then, I have the benefit of hindsight, as does Maisie Dobbs, who solves tricky cases in 1920s and 1930s London. And while she knows better than I do what a mark the Great War left on everyone, I am grateful to have these stories, which chronicle the lives of ordinary people facing a conflict that brought change they never imagined. I admire their bravery, their unflinching devotion to duty, family and country, in the face of a nightmare which came up with the suddenness of a summer squall. I grieve for their losses as I turn the pages, and I am always reminded of Jem Blythe’s words near the end of Rilla of Ingleside:

We’re in a new world, and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks seem to think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished – it isn’t really begun. It will be the task of years. […] It isn’t enough to drive out the old spirit – we’ve got to bring in the new.

Wise and challenging words from a lieutenant of the Great War, who along with his family and comrades truly embodies bravery. I’m inspired and humbled – by his story and by these others – every single time.

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