Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery

After the rollercoaster ride of the middle three books of the Anne books, these books were a fascinating conclusion, wrapping up, in a sense, everything that there is in the series. Rainbow Valley has the charm and vibrancy of Anne of Green Gables (changing the focus in this book to Anne's children was probably, for Montgomery, a good choice). The stories of the Blythe children, and their motherless acquaintances across the valley has the sweet tender sense of impossible hopefulness, the feeling of defiant optimism in spite of everything. After the hopeless sympathy of reading Anne of Ingleside, this felt like a nice hug.
As Ms. Reid mentioned in the comments on my previous review, Rilla of Ingleside is a very different sort of book, though if it is akin to any book, it is most akin to house of dreams, with the same strange conflict between sorrow and joy. The book begins with Rilla, the youngest and (to put in a little anachronism) ditziest (Alright, lets say flightiest, and stay in period) going to her first big dance. She's worried about her shoes, about her dress, she's thrilled to know that she's one of the prettiest girls there, she moons over someone. It's kind of a painfully banal scene. And then, just at the end of the party, the announcement comes that England is entering the First World War, and everyone rushes home. Rilla's brother enlists in the army, and Rilla immediately goes to work in various homefront war enterprises.
The book, from a high nose snooty point of view has it's faults, but at the same, time, it captures with a delicacy that I've seen in no other war book the sudden feeling of cataclysm and bravery that came with the end of the Belle Epoque and the beginning of the First World War. And, the growth of Rilla from a pleasing, useless creature into a truly heroic, mature soul felt both realistic and touching. The death, which I will not elaborate on, was one of the most powerful homefront war stories I've read in a long time, and I actually had to stop my car on the side of the road on the way to work for a moment, when I heard the part about the neighbor child bringing Anne a bundle of spring may-flowers, so I wouldn't have to drive while crying (I have learned to avoid charges of DWW - drinking while weeping).
When I read the other Anne books, I honestly felt a sort of frustration that Ms Montgomery threw in Ingleside and Windy Poplars into the middle of her old sequence of books. Having finished now, I'm almost glad the structure is what it is, and if nothing else, after writing Rilla, I can understand why Ms Montgomery whould choose to work in the middle, rather than try to build on to the end of her story. That sounds very cold, very clinical. It's more than that. Let my try my best to explain.
When you love an author, especially when you love them through many, many books, there is a painful, crippling, quality to it. An author who is so personal in their writing, you don't just coldly admire their intelligence and skill, you come to really love them. It's something like having a sister or a very dear friend - only it is a friend who inexplicably, irretrievably distant from you, something like receiving extremely personal letters from someone to whom you cannot respond. In some cases, this is almost a transcendant experience: Reading Wuthering Heights and the poems of Emily Bronte, I feel a sort of force, knowing that she has ebcome what she is, that' she's made her choices. You can feel that Emily knows where her life is leading, and that she is ready for it:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere;

But Ms Montgomery you love too, but then, you know she never found that. Her story is backwards, from a place where she was peaceful, hopeful, until the end of her life, where she has unravelled so far that she has lost the will to spool it back up. And then, that's all. That's all there is. Your sister has called you, left you her suicide note, and your holding the phone, listening to her cry into the receiver, and there's nothing you can do, you can't even talk to her, you can't even be there with her, because she isn't really there.
There is a sad, pretty comfort, at least, in knowing that you don't have to stop there, that at least she lived her life out of order, and that you can read on into the middle, and remember how she meant to face the end of things. It doesn't change things, of course. You know that she left in a way that she would never have wanted to, and what's more, you know your own impotence to make a difference. But it's something, at least.


L said...

What you say about loving authors is exactly how I feel about the Bronte sisters, and your assessment of Montgomery seems pretty clear to me too. Blue Castle is probably my favorite of hers.

Unknown said...

I've never read Blue Castle, though I read Kilmeney of the ORchard, which was a lovely book, and proved to me that she did write things that weren't about Anne :D, so I'll have to try it now! When I finish my current Fill in the Gaps, I'll have to put "Complete Works of LM Montgomery" on the next one :P

Unknown said...

And - I'm glad someone else feels that way about the Brontes. Makes me feel like I'm not crazy :).

Rebecca Reid said...

I never knew about the story of L.M. Montgomery when i read the stories, either as a kid or two years ago when I reread them, so hearing your thoughts about her artistic development is very interesting. I never really even realized they were published out of "order".

I do think Rilla is a quite genius of a book, because yes, she's quite annoying in the beginning, and yet it ultimately has so much depth to it. It was one of the only contemporary novel written by a Canadian woman of the woman's role back at home in Canada. I always cry when I read it!