Friday, 17 June 2011

Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery


I've decided to review the concluding two books in the Anne of Green Gables series in a single post, as I've already said a lot about Rilla of Ingleside three years ago. (You can read the original post here. Caution: It's long and full of spoilers.)

Rainbow Valley follows on from Anne of Ingleside, but by this point the Anne books aren't really about Anne Blythe, nee Shirley, any more. Rainbow Valley isn't even a Blythe family book, but instead is centred on a new family, the Merediths. John Meredith is the new Presbyterian minister, a young widower with four children. Although academically brilliant, Mr Meredith is completely at a loss when it comes to bringing up his children, and Jerry, Faith, Una and Carl cause scandal in the community by their wild behaviour.

I found Rainbow Valley to be much more enjoyable than Anne of Ingleside. The Blythe children, who befriend the Merediths, are a little older, and their escapades are less cutesy-poo and more heartfelt. Under the children's silly scapes is their real longing to get their father's attention, and to become respectable members of the community. Although I didn't feel that I got to know the boys very well - I would get Jerry Meredith confused with Jem Blythe, both being the eldest of their respective families, and having similar names - there was real character in the girls: impulsive, big-hearted Faith, and shy, thoughtful Una. We also got to know Walter Blythe better, who is growing to be an extraordinary, unearthly boy with his own battles.

Then there's Mary Vance, a runaway orphan "adopted" by the Merediths. Mary's story has strong parallels with Anne's own childhood, but a very different character - maybe an insight into what Anne could have been like without her imagination? Mary's language and attitude horrifies the minister's children, and even after she is being "brought up properly," she has a sharp tongue and too high an opinion of herself. I don't exactly like Mary Vance, but there is no denying she is a living character.

Perhaps I felt more interested in Rainbow Valley than its predecessor because L. M. Montgomery herself was more interested. Ingleside and Windy Willows, which are less of a joy for me to read, were written at a later date when I understand Montgomery had fallen out of love with Anne, and it shows. In Rainbow Valley there is stronger characterisation, with some newcomers who are more than gossippy old women and match-making subjects, but who take on a valuable role in the story. We meet intelligent, argumentative Norman Douglas, the West sisters imprisoned by their own vows to each other, and of course Mary and the Merediths, all of whom are as knowable as the Avonlea residents of old.



Anne's story concludes in Rilla of Ingleside, when her children are grown up, and so has the story. For the first time the timeless, slightly other-worldly, other-time classic is brutally placed into an exact place in history: World War One. I found it interesting to read about Canada as part of the British empire and the characters' patriotism towards a country most of them had never seen. I felt uncomfortable noticing that Rilla, who was so set against her brothers going to war, addressed a meeting about dying for one's country being glorious, and helping to persuade young lads to join up.

But this book does not allow idealism to overshadow the ugliness of war. We don't get to see the action first-hand - although one of Jem's letters home was reminiscent of some of war poet Wilfred Owen's writing - but Montgomery focuses in on the agony and helplessness of the people on the home front; the families, friends and lovers of the soldiers. Though full of comic and heartwarming scenes, through Rilla, Anne and Rilla's friend Gertrude, we feel the relentless agony of life, love and loss at such an unpredictable time, the fear that must underscore every aspect of life "Till the boys come home." And, of course, many never would return, including one of the Blythes' most beloved friends-and-relations. To Gertrude, Rilla, Una Meredith and me as a reader, it seemed that such loss could not be borne, but of course they survive and carry on. They must. But Rilla of Ingleside made it clear that for all who lived through the fateful years, the world had changed forever in a way that one can never quite get over.

Rilla of Ingleside is a guaranteed tearjerker, a bittersweet ending to the story that started off as such sweet escapism. In some ways I am glad that Anne retreated into the background in the later stories, as it seems so terrible that her story should take such a turn. By this point, this is far more than just a children's story, but a unique piece of World War One literature that deserves a place in the canon.

1 comment:

  1. I loove Rilla of Ingleside. Wonderful review. I have always liked Rainbow Valley - the book I have was one I found in an aunt's attic, so it's very old.

    Also, on PEI, we had the best ever play place, called Rainbow Valley, located in Cavendish/Avonlea. It had a bit of everything - small rides, water slides, playground, canoes, paddle boats, shaky bridge, and so much more. Generations of Island children spent their end of year fieldtrips there. I counted 50 school buses one time. It was the saddest thing when the owner retired and shut the place down. Sorry, I went off on a bit of a Rainbow Valley tangent.

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