Category Archives: Fiction — historical

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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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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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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The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

longsongOne of my favourite things about historical fiction is the opportunity to learn about another place and time in a way that completely immerses me in a person’s story. That was the case with The Long Song, a novel set during the final years of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation.

Of course, I knew that the use of enslaved African people had its start on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, long before it came to the cotton fields of the American South. I also knew that slavery ended three decades earlier in the British Empire than it did in the US — that was the context for Canada being the ultimate destination for enslaved people fleeing the US via the Underground Railroad. What I didn’t know was any detail about how the institution of slavery ended in the Caribbean — the six-year period of “apprenticeship” workers were required to serve after supposedly being freed, the reactions of both enslaved people and slave owners to the change in status, the ways in which slave owners attempted to cripple their former chattels’ attempts to be independent and self-sufficient so that they would continue to have a source of cheap labour. 

This brutal story is told through the eyes of the elderly July, who grew up in slavery, was taken from her mother in childhood to become a personal maid to the plantation owner’s sister Caroline, and made the uneasy transition to freedom on a plantation ruled by Caroline and her overseer Robert Goodwin, a man who arrives in Jamaica from England full of noble ideas about justice and freedom for enslaved people, but quickly changes his views when confronted with the realities of plantation life. Through horrific treatment and injustice July emerges as a strong-willed, wry, witty commentator on the society changing so rapidly around her. Her voice and its dialect rhythms carries the reader into her world with vivid and convincing detail.

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Ecstasy, by Mary Sharratt

ecstasyThis was an interesting novel about the early life of Alma Schindler, a young Viennese composer of the late 19th/early 20th century, who is best known for her turbulent marriage to Gustav Mahler (and two subsequent marriages, after his death, to two other famous men). It was a fascinating glimpse not only into her life but into the intellectual and cultural life of pre-WW1 Vienna, a world at once so brilliant and sophisticated, and yet a world where it was completely plausible that a gifted musician could ask his young wife to give up her own musical career when the married, and where the same gifted composer could be virtually hounded out of public life because of anti-Semitism.

It was only when the book was finished and I was thinking, “What a shame it concentrates so totally on Alma’s early life, when so many more interesting things happened to her later” that I realized I had read another book by Mary Sharratt a few years ago, about Hildegard of Bingen, and had the exact same complaint — so much focus on a fascinating woman’s early life, with not enough attention paid to her later years.  Despite that complaint, this was an intriguing book about yet another gifted woman who we only know about it because of her connection to a famous man.

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The Map of Salt and Stars

saltandstarsThis was such a beautiful and engrossing book. It tells two parallel stories. In the present day (well, the recent past — 2011), twelve-year-old Nour moves back to Syria with her mother and two older sisters. The family has been living in the US, where Nour was born, but with her father’s death from cancer they return to the parents’ home country — just in time to find it torn apart by civil war.

Nour’s story is told in alternating chapters with a story she remembers her father telling her — the legend of Rawiya, a teenaged girl who disguises herself as a boy to travel the Middle East in the company of a famous mapmaker. (The mapmaker, al-Idrisi, is a real historical character, but the Rawiya legend is invented by the author for this book). While I enjoyed the Rawiya story, which combines historical and mythical elements, it was Nour’s contemporary story that really grabbed my attention.

For those of us whose only exposure to the Syrian war comes through news stories featuring devastated refugee families, we may not have given a lot of thought to how those people became refugees. In Map of Salt and Stars, we see how Nour’s family goes from the an ordinary middle-class life consumed with sibling squabblings between the sisters and attempting to get past grief at their father’s death, to living as refugees on the run with only the clothes they are wearing when their apartment building in Homs is bombed just as they are about to sit down to dinner. The story demonstrates with shattering detail how quickly ordinary people living ordinary lives can lose everything and become homeless and desperate when civil war erupts around them. Although the author is Syrian-American and did not live in Syria during the war, she has certainly created what feels like a believable picture of a young girl and her family navigating these horrific events, trying to stay together and hold onto hope.

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