It’s 1914 and the world is on the brink of war. But at almost fifteen, Anne and Gilbert’s youngest daughter, Rilla, dreams only of her first dance and getting her first kiss from the dashing Kenneth Ford. Soon, however, even far-off Ingleside is engulfed by Europe’s raging conflict, as Rilla’s brothers Jem and Walter both enlist, and Rilla finds herself caring for an orphaned newborn.
As the conflict spreads, the Blythes wait anxiously for word of their absent sons, and a bad omen leads them to conclude that something terrible has happened overseas. Have Jem and Walter been lost, like so many valiant young men before them? And what of Kenneth Ford? Will he ever return to Ingleside to keep the promise he made to Rilla before he left?
In this final book in the Anne of Green Gables series, young Rilla Blythe is swept into a drama that tests her courage and changes her life forever.
Please note: this is the eighth and final book in the Anne of Green Gables series to be discussed on this blog. If you missed the previous instalments, please click here to catch up. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS READALONG. I’m sorry, but so much happens and the book is, at the time of this writing, 94 years old, so I’m going to say that the statute on spoilers is over.
True confession: I’ve put off posting this last readalong posting because I didn’t want this to end. Rilla of Ingleside is one of my favourites of the series, not only because it’s the first book that is truly about the next generation at Ingleside, but because it gives us such beautiful and tragic moments within its pages. While Anne of the Island may have given me happy sighs, this book brought me laughter and tears in equal measure. Even now, so many years after the first reading, I teared up again reading certain passages.
This book focuses on Rilla, the youngest of the Blythe clan and easily the most immature at the start of the book. However, after being challenged by her father, her determination to raise baby Jims even while others doubted that she was capable showed more backbone than she had ever demonstrated before. There’s some references to the other siblings, and to the extended family of the Meredith and Ford children (including Ken, who makes Rilla promise not to kiss anyone else but him). The ever-spunky Mary Vance is also present, and in this case provides the practicality to offset Rilla’s flighty-ness, and the two become friends. While Rilla shares a remarkable number of the same characteristics for trouble as her mother, falling into various misadventures throughout the book, she learns to raise her chin and move forward, and I admired that about her. Rilla changes dramatically over the course of the novel, maturing into a wonderful young woman who would have made her namesake proud.
This book is also fascinating for me because it was one of the first books I read that actually detailed what women – and specifically Maritime women – did as part of the war effort in World War I. Being “from away”, all my bookish experience up until that point was restricted to stories about factory workers and southern Ontario experiences, and it was a stark reminder that not everyone had a jovial “we’re in this together” war experience. I love the detail that Montgomery included in this book, not only because it truly differentiates it from the others, but also because (being published in 1921) the memories and emotions still resonate within her writing. Each chapter’s opening entry documenting the household or villages view about the war effort is an extraordinary point of view, providing reactions to events that we could only imagine. This time around I found these references fascinating, and I looked up certain battles online just so I might have more context for Rilla’s observations.
Now to the hard part … this is why this book breaks my heart in several pieces with every reading. In later-written books that precede this one in the series, we are given foreshadowing about the fate of Walter, but actually reading about his death hurt me with its simplicity as much as it did Rilla and Anne:
But Rilla Blythe shed no tears before the nightfall. When her father, his face grey and drawn and old, came to her that afternoon and told her that Walter had been killed in action at Courcelette, she crumpled up in a pitiful little heap of merciful unconsciousness in his arms. Nor did she waken to her pain for many hours.
In true Walter fashion, however, we are given some solace with his death. Always too gentle for the world, Walter has written to his youngest sister the night before the battle that would kill him, knowing full well what is in store for him. In his letter he entrusts his sister with her own challenge:
“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here – freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again …
And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for – teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla.”
Just as devasting, but with joy to counterbalance sadness is the story of Dog Monday, Jem’s loyal companion who follows him to the Station the day he embarks on his military journey, and refuses to return to Ingleside. His loyalty and unfailing belief that he will see his master again is what sustains both Rilla and us as readers when Jem is declared missing. It is also Dog Monday who first senses Walter’s tragic death, howling through the night at the loss of his human friend. It is also Dog Monday who gives us that brilliant moment of catharsis at the end of the book – laughter through our tears.
“One spring day, when the daffodils were blowing on the Ingleside lawn, and the banks of the brook in Rainbow Valley were sweet with white and purple violets, the little, lazy afternoon train pulled into the Glen station. It was very seldom that passengers for the Glen came by that train, so nobody was there to meet it except the new station agent and a small black-and-yellow dog, who for four and half long years had met every train that had steamed into Glen St. Mary. Thousands of trains had Dog Monday met and never had the boy he waited and watched for returned….
…A black-and-yellow streak shot past the station agent. Dog Monday stiff? Dog Monday rheumatic? Dog Monday old? Never believe it. Dog Monday was a young pup, gone clean mad with rejuvenating joy.
He flung himself against the tall soldier, with a bark that choked in his throat from sheer rapture. He flung himself on the ground and writhed in a frenzy of welcome. He tried to climb the soldier’s khaki legs and slipped down and grovelled in an ecstasy that seemed as if it must tear his little body in pieces. He licked his boots and when the lieutenant had, with laughter on his lips and tears in his eyes, succeeded in gathering the little creature up in his arms, Dog Monday laid his head on the khaki shoulder and licked the sunburned neck, making queer sounds between barks and sobs.
The station agent had heard the story of Dog Monday. he knew now who the returned soldier was. Dog Monday’s long vigil was ended. Jem Blythe had come home.”
… give me a moment.
Rilla’s recount of Jem’s return and of Dog Monday’s dedication to his master is a much-needed lift and speaks to Montgomery’s belief that we must find the joy in dark times, through faith, love and loyalty to others. Rilla is a perfect example of this. Throughout the course of the book, she learns how to care for others beyond herself. She takes on the responsibility of baby Jims, works tirelessly to support not only the war effort but the community around her and when the war ends, she finds that she is at loose ends. It is at this point that Rilla is able to have her own moment to shine. Ken appears on her doorstep, returned from the war and with only one question on his mind: “Is it Rilla-my-Rilla?” It’s fitting that her response brings us full circle: “Yeth“.
Darker and more grounded in reality than many of the other Anne books, Rilla of Ingleside is fascinating to me not only because of the Anne connection but also because of the impact real-life has on the story. As much as I love re-reading these books, I’m always a little sad when I finish the last page – it’s like I’m saying goodbye to favourite friends, even though I know they are only a bookshelf away.
Thanks for joining me on my re-read of the “Anne of Green Gables” series. It’s been quite a year! What did you think of Rilla of Ingleside? How did you find the insertion of World War I into the narrative? Were you hoping for something different for Rilla’s future? Did you shed any tears? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, as well as an general thoughts about the series as a whole.
I was inspired to re-read the series thanks to a conversation I had with @reederreads at the end of 2014 – thanks for giving me the push to do so, Lindsey!
About the books: I read the Anne series as published recently by Tundra Books, a division of Random House of Canada. This edition included new covers by Elly McKay (@theaterclouds), beautifully rendered and available now for purchase either individually or in a boxed set.