Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (1921)
Book #8 — the final novel — in the Anne of Green Gables series. Be sure to read my previous reviews, linked below, before you read this one!
As Anne and Gilbert Blythe aged, LMM’s narrator began referring to them as Mrs. Blythe and Dr. Blythe. These distant names allowed me to forget this series started with Anne, so I didn’t feel quite so bitter like other readers when the novels were no longer really about her. While I didn’t love Anne of Ingleside — even in that book she was Mrs. Blythe and barely played a role — I did love Rainbow Valley. Both books are about children, the Blythes and then the newcomers, the Merediths. I’d like to say you could skip book #6 and just read #7 and #8, but you’d have a terrible foundation for the relationships between the important characters in Rilla of Ingleside. The children grow up and start falling in love with their friends and parents’ friends’ children: the Merediths, the Fords from Anne’s House of Dreams, the Crawfords, whom I don’t remember, but apparently there are a lot of them. You practically need to remember all the characters from the previous 7 books. When I forgot who someone was, I looked them up on the trusty Wikia created by fans; however, spoilers abound on that site — and I didn’t know until a few things were spoiled for me! Doh!
The year is 1914. The novel opens with trusty old Susan, whom I’ve always found boring and bossy in a bad way, reading the Glen newspaper. She’s looking for the gossip column about Glen folks and is happy to see that many inhabitants of Ingleside have made the news for their accomplishments. The paper also mentions something about an Archduke being killed, but really, it’s not decent for such things to clutter up Susan’s gossip.
Rilla is now 15. Her parents say she’s irresponsible and unmotivated (no extra schooling for her, thank you very much, and no, she will not be learning how to cook, bake, sew, or keep house because that’s boring — and maybe she’s implying it’s beneath her?). But Rilla is beautiful, and LMM has taught me nothing if not beauty rules the world. The book opens with her hardly able to wait to attend her first dance. Although Rilla has a splendid time and spends an hour alone with Kenneth Ford, the night is ruined when a boy runs into the dance exclaiming that war has been declared — readers know this is World War I. Fortunately, Kenneth had broken his ankle and it’s still healing, and Walter Blythe is still recovering from a near-fatal bout of typhoid, so they won’t go. But Jem Blythe is so terribly excited about signing up, telling everyone how fun war will be. He and Jerry Meredith are the firsts to go, making everyone proud. The war will be over in a month or two for sure.
And that’s the basic summary of how the novel starts. But there’s something different about Rilla of Ingleside: I felt engaged and involved in a way I haven’t felt with no other Green Gables book. At first, I was very worried about how shallow Book #8 might be. Rilla is a pill. She tells her friend:
“There’s five [Blythes] going to college already. Surely that’s enough. There’s bound to be one dunce in every family. I’m quite willing to be a dunce if I can be a pretty, popular, delightful one. I have no talent at all, and you can’t imagine how comfortable that is.”
I mean, this girl is my enemy. She’s the girl I see sitting in my classroom whose parent forced her to go to college, but she’s always 20 minutes late to the 8:00AM class because putting on make-up to literally look like Barbie is time consuming.
Yet a war won’t allow someone to stay a pill, not one capable of love. Rilla must change, and LMM does a splendid job with character development. One by one the boys of the Glen leave, and Rilla must be strong for them so they can be strong in the trenches. That’s a big request, one Rilla realizes she must take seriously. At her mother’s encouragement, she starts a Junior Red Cross. While canvassing one day for the JRC, she decides to go to a home that looks a little problematic due to the residents’ possible attitudes on canvassers (Oh, how this reminded me of Anne and Diane canvassing in Anne of Avonlea). What Rilla finds through an already-open door is a dead woman, a fat woman smoking and drinking, and a shrieking newborn. The mother gave birth and didn’t recover, so the fat woman stuck around, but wasn’t caring for the baby. The father had enlisted and so was gone, not knowing of the birth of a baby. Rilla, shallow Rilla, decides she can’t leave the baby there. She carries the “ugly baby,” who isn’t dressed or clean, home in a soup tureen. Problem is, Rilla hates babies:
“I wish I could like the baby a little bit. It would make things easier. But I don’t. I’ve heard people say that when you took care of a baby you got fond of it — but you don’t — I don’t, anyway.”
To avoid burdening Susan or her mother, Rilla buys a book called Morgan on Infants. It’s so specific and funny reading a how-to book on babies from the 1920s, such as it’s unhygienic to kiss an infant on the face (I agree) and never walk a baby to comfort it. Yet, Rilla does walk her nameless war baby: “I could have shaken the creature if it had been big enough to shake, but it wasn’t.” Shaken?? Good grief! Rilla’s frustrations didn’t strike me as barbaric or cruel, though; I found her realistic. If in 2016 I have to defend my decision to not have children, imagine Rilla saying she doesn’t like babies in 1914. Some people see crying babies and feel empathy; others of us want them to be quite now. It was strange; I never thought I would connect personally with a Green Gables book, but Rilla had me connecting with her frequently. Even much later Rilla says, “No, I don’t like you and I never will but for all that I’m going to make a decent, upstanding infant of you.” Oh, how I laughed!
The novel is told via a narrator and occasionally a diary that Rilla keeps. The balance works well. As you may remember, I didn’t care for the majority of Anne of Windy Poplars being told as letters, mainly because they read exactly like the narrator. Was the narrator Anne? No, but their voices were indistinguishable. Rilla’s diary, however, is very Rilla, and it’s awfully sassy, too. Her voice is unique, strong, and enjoyable. She has a lot to say that couldn’t be uttered aloud, so readers get a true insight into her feelings.
Rilla also learns to knit “war socks” and bake food to send over seas. She grows and changes. She humiliates herself by apologizing to a truly cruel young woman in order to make a success of the Junior Red Cross benefit concert. There’s a determination there, much like Anne Shirley’s determination to never be friends with Gilbert Blythe, but her determination is written in a way that’s both funny and significant. You want Rilla’s plans to work out, as she really is working hard to be the support the boys in khaki need and were promised.
Another big transformation that I loved happened in Susan, a character I never liked. In fact, I was more endeared to Rebecca Dew of Anne of Windy Poplars, even though Susan’s been in four whole books! But war changes everyone. Susan religiously reads the newspapers for stories from the front. She memorizes geography, difficult to pronounce names, important leaders, and learns the in’s and out’s of politics. Really, she’s the most knowledgeable of the characters on the war. She’s calling the local store for the most recent news, and she usually gets it before anyone else. I was amazed and grew to love Susan for the upstanding person she became. She rationed and sewed and dug up her beloved flowers to make a potato garden and ran up the flag after small victories and tilled a field and chased a German sympathizer with a pot of boiling dye.
Most memorably, the author had me in shambles for most of the book. I’ve never read a war story that, to me, realistically captured what it was like for the people at home. Sure, the characters get to sleep in their own beds and eat good meals and be relatively lice-free (Jem says he’s fighting “Germans and cooties”), but the agony of not knowing day after day …and the war lasts four years… is just awful. I never thought it could be as awful at home as in the trenches, but LMM shows it really was. People are jittery and more apt to speak honestly, even if they swear and have bad manners and say negative things about God.
LMM injects pathos both realistic and unrealistic that grabbed me and choked me up with emotion. The soldiers who do come back to the Glen are, realistically, not the same laughing, excited, 18-year-old boys who left. They are men, gaunt, limping, incomplete in body, changed in soul, some with grey hair after only four years — and tears were shed for the reality of it. Then, there’s Dog Monday, the Blythe’s pet who saw Jem off at the train station when Jem signed up immediately for service. Dog Monday will not come home, keeping vigil at the train station and checking every passenger who disembarks to see if his beloved master is yet returned. Dog Monday had me crying at times from the heartache I truly felt.
The last paragraph of the book actually had me laughing — from relief, from the romance I hoped would endure between characters, from literally the last word spoken by Rilla Blythe in the book.
Rilla of Ingleside is my favorite book of the Anne of Green Gables series, and for those of you who never read the later books, please do just so you can get to #8. There’s something special and important in this final novel that’s lacking in the previous seven books. When I woke up the day after I finished, I was sad there was no more.
This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.