This is part five of a six-part series we are doing this week to commemorate Remembrance Day.
On the 5th of August, 1914, L.M. Montgomery wrote in her journal:
"Good God, I cannot believe it! It must be a horrible dream. It has come up like a thundercloud…It has come. Britain or Germany must fall. But the death-grapple will be awful beyond anything ever known in the world before. Oh, if I could but waken up and find it all a dream….Already Canada is ablaze. Volunteers are being called for Red Cross and patriotic funds are being started. The bottom has fallen out of the world’s markets. Civilization stands aghast at the horror that is coming upon it."
It is no secret that one of my literary influences and favourite authors is L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables. It is also no secret that Rilla of Ingleside (1921) is my favourite Montgomery novel. It is also no secret how strongly I feel that this novel should be an essential book on Canadian YA reading lists – particularly when readers are interested in wartime. The new paperback edition of the fully revised manuscript includes a special introduction by Benjamin Lefebvre and Andrea McKenzie, maps and a glossary of war terms. It is a beautiful edition and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Montgomery, wartime literature or YA novels that take place during times of war.
When the hardcover edition came out last year, I revisited the novel and second volume of Montgomery’s journals, and was once again moved by her insight into the emotional nuances of grieving and of the arduous kind of waiting that is characteristic of wartime. It is hard for us to imagine that one hundred years ago, the boys we grew up with, the men we may have worked with and our brothers, husbands and partners would have joined in the wake of that strong call to arms in the belief that Canada, as an English colony, was in real danger. It is also hard to imagine, that many of those same men never came home. If we consider Montgomery’s fictional world of Ingleside, as a representation of the different townships across Canada, than I think we will begin to understand the magnitude WWI (and subsequent wars) had on our nation’s history.
Last month, I attended and spoke at a conference in Leaksdale, Ontario, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Montgomery’s move to the area as a newlywed with the Reverend Ewan MacDonald. A number of themes emerged of this conference, but the most striking was the impact the war had on Montgomery and her work. Her novels, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside speak to the personal and communal losses, as well as the communal pride for the families who made the ultimate sacrifice.
As a writer and citizen, Montgomery was obsessed with the war. Many of her journal entries give specific details of the battles and her strong opinions on the politics of the day. However, as a minister’s wife, whatever concern or grief Montgomery would have been kept to herself as she had to be the counsellor and support system for her community. Her writing was one of her only outlets.
By the time Rainbow Valley, the seventh novel in the Anne of Green Gables series, was published in 1919 the war may have been over, but its legacy was fresh. Montgomery dedicated the novel to three men from the Leaksdale community who died in the war. “To the memory of Goldwin Lapp, Robert Brookes, and Morley Shier, who made the supreme sacrifice that the happy valleys of their home land might be kept sacred from the ravage of the invader.”
Rainbow Valley focuses on Anne and Gilbert’s young children and their friends. Although it might seem that they live in a romantic, idealized world, there is an undercurrent running through the novel that these nine children will be part of a dark destiny. At the end of the novel, Walter, Anne and Gilbert’s poetic son, has a vision on the valley in which he sees the piper call the children onto a very different field. And, when his older brother, Jem, talks about playing soldier, we know that one day he won’t be just playing.
Walter’s vision comes true in Rilla of Ingleside when war is declared and Jem and his friend Jerry head off to war. Indeed, three of Anne and Gilbert’s children go off to war. Only two come home.
Montgomery wrote in her journals that with Rilla of Ingleside, she wanted to write a novel about Canada at War. It is one of the only contemporary accounts of the Canadian women’s experience on the home front as books on WWI didn’t start coming out until well into the 1920s and those were mostly about the battlefield. Rilla is Anne and Gilbert’s youngest daughter. Her teenage years are bracketed by the war, as it begins the night of her first party when she’s fifteen, and ends when she’s a young woman of eighteen. Told in multiple points of view, Rilla becomes the record keeper of the war: journaling the anxiety in waiting for news of the front; the work women did for the Red Cross; and the emotional grief at insurmountable loss.
Rilla of Ingleside is one of those books that always gives me shivers. During the Leaksdale conference, whenever Walter’s name, or, Jem’s faithful dog, Dog Monday, were mentioned, you could hear a silent gasp or someone reaching into their bag for a tissue. (And those were just the men.)
According to Montgomery scholar, Mary Beth Cavert, who has spent years researching the dedications of Montgomery’s novels, Dog Monday is most likely based upon Goldwin Lapp’s dog, who howled the day that Lapp died.
The story of Dog Monday may have come from a poem in Montgomery's school reader, "Dog at His Master's Grave." In Rilla, Dog Monday stays at the train station for four years, waiting patiently for Jem to come home. One cannot help but wonder if Montgomery wrote the scene with Lapp in mind, in which Dog Monday howls for Walter. The station master tells Rilla that her dog “howled from midnight to sunrise something weird…He was sitting all alone in the moonlight out there at the end of the platform, and every few minutes the poor lonely little beggar’d lift his nose and howl as if his heart was breaking.” A few days later, Rilla finds out that Walter has died.
At the conference, Cavert told a story that at one of Montgomery’s high school visits many years later in which while she was reading this reunion scene, she got very emotional and almost couldn’t get through it. “A black and yellow streak shot past the station agent…Dog Monday was a young pup, gone clean mad with rejuvenating joy. He flung himself against the tall soldier, with a bark that chocked in his throat from sheer rapture.” Clearly, this was the scene she would have wished.
When the war finally ended on the 11th of November 1918, Montgomery prophetically wrote:
"Today came the official announcement of the signing of the armistice! The Great War is over – the world’s agony has ended. What has been born? The next generation may be able to answer that. We can never know fully."
I think that we are only now beginning to see what that is.