Rilla of Ingleside (again), by L.M. Montgomery

rillaAfter looking up a half-remembered quote from this book for my Remembrance Day blog post, I decided to sit down and re-read the book from beginning to end. While I have read this book probably closet to 100 times, to the point where I have there are sentences and paragraphs I remember word for word, I hadn’t revisited it since 2010, when I re-read it and several other Montgomery books for period detail while I was writing That Forgetful Shore.

I already wrote a blog post about that 2010 reread, which you can read here, so I don’t need to cover all the same ground again. What I wanted to write about here was not so much a review (of a book that’s so much a part of me, how can I even review it?) but a reflection on what it meant to re-read it specifically November 11, 2018, as our part of the world paused to remember the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the conflict which makes up the subject of Rilla of Ingleside.

I am more convinced now than ever that Rilla is Canada’s great First World War novel; its overt (but beautiful, and fully earned) sentimentality, and the focus on small-town women’s activity on the home front, lead people underestimate it on this score. L.M. Montgomery wrote the book very soon after living through the war and losing her best friend in the flu epidemic that followed it. By all accounts she was as unquestioningly supportive of the Allied war effort, as devoted to following war news, and as convinced that God was on the Allied side, as the Blythes and their friends are in the novel.

This uncritical support of the cause jars on the modern reader, even on Remembrance Day, even for someone who loves the novel as much as I do. The only pacifist in the novel, a sanctimonious church elder nicknamed “Whiskers-on-the-Moon” Pryor, is treated with unrelenting ridicule, and is the novel’s only true villain (except the distant Kaiser, of course).

The possibility that Allied accounts of German atrocities might be exaggerated to get civilians to support the war effort, that the beloved British Empire has committed atrocities of its own, or that ordinary German soldiers (and their families back home) may be as deserving of sympathy as the stalwart Canadian characters, never seems to occur to anyone in the book. The characters represent a wide variety of approaches and attitudes to the war, from the staunch and ever optimistic Susan Baker to the often gloomily despondent Gertrude Oliver, but none save the villain ever questions the rightness of Britain’s cause or the value of their soldiers’ sacrifice — including the soldiers themselves.

There are so many details of day-to-day life and attitudes that a contemporary novelist effortlessly gets right, which a historical novelist rarely can — that’s the richness and value of reading a novel written during or shortly after the events it depicts. The weakness is that lack of perspective and reflection that only time brings: the patriotic fervor of Rilla of Ingleside is as rah-rah as the Victory fundraising and recruitment rallies that Rilla organizes and speaks at.

The kind of detail that is so lovely is the way the novel takes us into ordinary Canadians’ engagement with the war — for example, the fact that Susan, a 64-year-old housekeeper with minimal education, finds herself becoming an expert on European geography and politics as she pores over the daily news reports. The details of the family at Ingleside discussing and debating each incremental bit of war news is part of what makes this book such an informative and intimate portrayal of life on the home front.

I mentioned sentimentality, and this novel has it in buckets. “Buckets” is also an excellent unit of measurement for the tears I shed during this re-reading. Amid vivid realism and plenty of humour, there is nothing subtle about the pathos of this book. While the battlefield death of one of the Ingleside boys (even 97 years later, I won’t spoil it by saying which, but you’ll know as soon as you start the book who is Marked To Die) is milked for every tear. The soldier-poet son, Walter, writes a stirring poem while in the trenches which is an obvious stand-in for John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” Walter’s poem, called “The Piper” becomes an instant classic around the Commonwealth, the “one great poem of the war,” and while Montgomery (wisely) never includes the actual poem in the novel’s text, I cried every time it was mentioned.

Of course, as everyone who has read the novel knows, the largest box of tissues must be reserved for Jem Blythe’s faithful Dog Monday, who spends the entire war (and sometime afterwards) living in a storage shed at the local railway station, after refusing to leave until he sees Jem return. (Something I had never thought about before this reading is that at the time the war breaks out, Jem has been away for five years at university and med school, presumably home only on holidays, and Dog Monday has never exhibited this severe separation anxiety before. The implication — further borne out by other unusual canine behavior he demonstrates later in the book — is that Dog Monday has the ability to sense that this is more than an ordinary absence for his young master; that Jem’s life is in danger and he must stand guard). I suppose there are people who can read the descriptions of Dog Monday’s vigil at the railway station and laugh at the corny early-20th century sentimentality. But frankly, if you are the person who can read the following paragraph and not shed a tear, I’m not sure I want to be friends with you, you hard-hearted cynic:

“Ay, wait there, little faithful dog with the soft, wistful, puzzled eyes. But it will be many a long bitter day before your boyish comrade comes back to you.”

The aspect of this novel that makes it hardest to re-read on Remembrance Day 2018, 100 years later, is part and parcel of its unwavering belief in the Allied cause — it’s the bright-eyed optimism about the war’s lasting impact. In a letter written on the eve of battle, Walter the poet writes that he is fighting for:

“the future, not of Canada only but of the world — when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest — not in a year or two, as some foolishy think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow.”

Later, Rilla quotes her other brother, Jem, after the war has ended:

“‘We’re in a new world,’ Jem says, ‘and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished — it isn’t really begun. The old world is destroyed and we must build up the new one. It will be the task of years. I’ve seen enough of war to realize that we’ve got to make a world where wars can’t happen.’”

“A generation later…” Walter writes. Yes, the seed sown from 1914-1918 did germinate a generation later. Montgomery lived to see it, and if she had had the heart to continue the series, we know that the sons of Rilla and Ken, Jem and Faith, Nan and Jerry would have been just old enough to fight in the Second World War. Knowing that makes this book’s optimism, its heartfelt belief in the value of those young men’s sacrifice, almost unbearable to read 100 years later. And that — even more, perhaps, than Dog Monday, is why I cried this Remembrance Day.

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The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

thebookshopI picked this book up on a whim; it was one of several available at a good sale price from the place I usually buy e-books, and knowing nothing more about it than that it was titled The Bookshop, I followed my usual rule of thumb — if the title references a bookshop or a library, I’ll read it — and bought it for something like $1.99.

Even after reading the blurb, I was surprised by this book. For one thing, I thought it was a recent release. It’s not: it’s a 1978 novel that’s recently been made into a movie (hence the movie tie-in cover pictured here). I thought it would be a fairly light piece of fluff: it was, in fact, short-listed for the Booker Prize. And while it is, ostensibly, about a bookshop, it’s really about other things (well, that part it has in common with most ostensibly bookshop-related books).

It’s 1959, and in the small English town of Hardborough, middle-aged widow Florence Green opens a bookshop, despite the lack of interest of most of her neighbours and the open hostility of the local society matron, who wants Florence’s bookshop property for the arts centre she dreams of opening. Aided only by a fiercely opinionated ten-year-old assistant, Florence perseveres against the mounting odds.

In the sort of book I was expecting when I picked it up, Florence’s bookshop would eventually prevail and the matron would get her come-uppance. The ten-year-old girl from the impoverished family would be inspired by her association with the bookstore to reach for bigger and better things in life. And one of the unlikely, crusty old bachelors in town would prove an unexpected love interest for Florence. (One feels this would be especially likely to be the case when one learns that the movie adaptation stars Bill Nighy).

But none of these things happen. Instead, The Bookshop is an intensely detailed, witty but also dark, exploration of a small town and its highly class-bound, prejudiced, provincial society. The book is not particularly plot-driven, but what plot there is does not tend towards wish-fulfillment. Rather, the fate of Florence’s bookstore is harshly realistic, and many questions are left unanswered at the end of the novel. There is no heartwarming ending or midlife romance. Instead, there’s just life, as awkward and inconvenient and unsatisfying as it often is. It’s observed here with humour, with generosity, but entirely without sentimentality.

Also, there’s a poltergeist. I almost forgot about that.

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Calahan

mrslewisThis novel recreates a story I’ve always found fascinating: the unlikely love affair (or was it???) between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman.

The facts are well-known to any Lewis fan: the lifelong bachelor writer married his good friend, the divorced American writer Joy Davidman Gresham, in 1956, ostensibly as a marriage of convenience so that she and her young sons could legally remain in the U.K. Not long after their marriage, Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer, with the expectation that she would not live long. Unexpectedly, she experienced a temporary recovery and lived with Lewis until her cancer returned and she died in 1960.

The pleasure the two took in each other’s company during the short years Joy was in remission, and Lewis’s searing exploration of loss in the book he wrote after her death, A Grief Observed, have led many to conclude that somewhere along the way, the marriage of convenience between friends grew into a genuine love affair, complete with consummation. But in the absence of any definite statements left behind by either Lewis or Davidman, others have continued to insist that theirs was merely a platonic friendship in which Lewis looked after his dear friend until she died.

Either makes a great story, of course, and it’s a story that has been explored before, for example in the film Shadowlands. What makes Patti Callahan’s imaginative retelling different is that she is very much telling Joy’s story, not Lewis’s, from Joy’s first-person point of view. While this is fiction and Callahan certainly includes things we cannot know, she has drawn very heavily on what remain of Joy Davidman’s own writings to present this picture of a complex, flawed, admirable woman who falls in love with a man who believes that, of the “four loves” he wrote about in one of his books, eros must be out of the question. How that relationship evolves is absolutely compelling, and while it may not be “the real story” — something we can never fully know — it certainly is a good story.

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The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, by Weina Dai Randel

duology

This duology tells the story of the young woman who becomes Empress Wu, the only woman to reign as Empress of China, almost 1400 years ago. The novel imagines Wu’s rise from a girl of good family who loses everything after her father’s untimely death, through her career as a royal concubine, to her love affair with the prince who, after his father’s death, risks censure to claim her as his own concubine and eventually his Empress. The atmosphere of court intrigue in 7th century China is well-depicted, and Wu is a very sympathetic character whose struggles we empathize with.

This may be why the series ends as soon as she becomes Empress Consort, and the author does not appear (from anything I’ve read online) to have any plans to continue the story. Empress Wu’s greatest accomplishments are still ahead of her by the time the second book ends: with her husband’s failing health she takes over most of the work of governing China, then, after power struggles with her sons and other members of court, she declares herself Empress regnant. However, a woman displacing her own sons to seize power is harder to cast in a sympathetic light than a woman rising to power because of a touching love story. Which is too bad, because I’d love to read a novel by a writer who could really delve into the complicated morass of court affairs in Wu’s later years and make the character compelling even as she’s having her sons killed, exiled, or imprisoned. Maybe someday Randal will return to tell us the rest of the story.

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Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq

splittoothI picked up Split Tooth because it was long-listed for the Giller Prize and I’ve been (as you probably know if you follow this blog at all) trying to diversify my reading list, so I was looking specifically for books by indigenous writers. I glanced at a copy in the bookstore and added it to my library hold list without knowing too much about what Split Tooth was actually about.

As it turns out, it’s a hard book to classify. If you follow this blog AND pay any attention to the category tags, you’ll see that I’ve categorized this book as General Fiction, Fantasy, and Memoir. Much of the early part of the book feels like memoir, though of course I don’t know how closely it tracks with the author’s real-life experience since it’s not marketed as memoir. It’s a vivid, first-person story about a young girl growing up in the high Arctic, interspersed with poetry. Partway through the book, the narrative pieces begin including elements of mythology/magical realism, and by the end it becomes clear the narrative has veered very far from realistic fiction (or memoir) into the realm of the mysterious, strange and mythical. It’s very unusual but also very beautiful.

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Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess

nothinglikethesunThis novel about Shakespeare, focusing on his romantic and sex-life, isn’t an easy read, but it did prove to be well worth reading. Burgess’s attempt to echo the language of Shakespeare’s era in his stream-of-consciousness narration reminded me a little of a much more recent novel, Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. The authenticity of the language makes it a slow read for the modern reader, but ultimately, a rewarding one, even if (especially as a woman) I might not agree with every aspect of Burgess’s perspective on Shakespeare’s private life. The mysteries of Shakespeare’s marriage, the “dark lady” of the sonnets, and the attractive young man to whom some of the sonnets are also addressed, are all fully explored in this book. I found it worked better while I read if I imagined it more as a series of length prose poems in Shakespeare’s voice than a novel in the more traditional sense.

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Educated, by Tara Westover

educatedAlthough I read these two books a few weeks apart, I’m posting my reviews of Tara Westover’s Educated and Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know back-to-back, because there are so many parallels between these two books and my responses to them.

Both books are recent, highly-acclaimed releases by women in their 30s, reflecting on their families of origin and their own journeys to maturity. Chung’s book is about an adoptive child seeking her birth family and trying to connect with their culture; Westover’s is about the child of “survivalist” parents who take their family off the grid and out of public school, trying to get herself a college education despite never having been to elementary or high school. Both are written from the perspective of someone for whom these events are still very fresh and to some degree ongoing; it’s clear that both writers are on good terms with some family members and estranged from others, which complicates what they do and don’t say in memoirs that you know darn well are going to be read, analyzed and dissected by everyone they know.

Westover’s story is titled Educated and one of its most fascinating story threads does, as the title promises, deal with her attempt to get a college education despite her lack of educational foundations. (Two of her brothers did the same thing; her parents discouraged this but also pointed to it as evidence of their success at “homeschooling” when, according to Westover’s account, they did very little if any homeschooling at all). The horrific gaps in her education are apparent when she finally does get to college and realizes, for example, that she’s never heard of the Holocaust. Tara’s attempt to integrate into “normal” life (or even to figure out what normal is) makes for an intriguing read.

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