In Which Our Heroine Blathers About Someone Else's Book

24 March 2004

I finished reading the last of the Anne of Green Gables series last night and am now wondering how the rest of the series would look from an adult perspective. But now is not the time -- I have plenty of other things to read now. Still. It was so different this time through.

The thing that weakened Rilla of Ingleside most for me, I think, was not dewy-eyed melodrama, but what I mentioned yesterday: the attempt to portray Walter as alone, unique as a "great" WWI poet, and his death as merciful. At least we weren't given his "great" poem to judge for ourselves -- that would have been too much to bear -- but this is bad enough, from the character's last letter to his sister: "I shall never be afraid of anything again -- not of death -- nor of life, if, after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face -- for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember -- things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them."

No. He couldn't. And yet -- the idea that someone of sensibility was better off dead than a veteran is horrible to me. It makes me wonder who L. M. Montgomery herself lost in that war, that she was telling herself that pious lie. I think of more recent wars. I think of some favorite people -- an uncle, a writer -- who are Vietnam vets. I don't want to belittle how hard it must be to come back from a war, but I still have to believe that they and I are better for their return than we would have been if they'd come back in boxes. It's just an awful thing to say. And it seems worse to me that the poet is the only major character who dies or even has a major injury. The sensitive one, the one who sees visions, is the one who's utterly destroyed by the war. Everyone else comes home. The ones who are blind in one eye or missing a leg are touched on only briefly, and that in a chin-up way. No character does have to live with being helpless, being unable to pursue their career of choice, being in constant pain. A clean, poetic death for the poet, and sturdy, practical lives for the practical men. She's twisted it around so that everyone gets a happy ending of some sort. I don't think you get to do that with a war.

If she hadn't brought up and then thoroughly dismissed a pacifist character, I might have interpreted all this as "we shouldn't subject our young people to such horrors." But she was absolutely adamant that the war was necessary to Canada's survival, and that every young man should fight in it if he could so much as crawl into a recruiting station. Bleh.

I cannot stand the idea that someone is "too good for this world." It's the good people who improve this world in the first place. Worse, this devalues the people we have left -- because obviously we were plenty bad enough for this world! -- and gives us a cop-out for not protecting people. It excuses us from dealing with problems in this world. As far as I'm concerned, we are not excused.

I think my disappointment is biggest here because L. M. Montgomery is generally not an author for pious lies. She's occasionally overwrought and melodramatic -- more often her characters are overwrought and melodramatic, but she mostly writes about adolescent girls, so that's understandable. But for her time, she did a lot of puncturing. Her orphan children never buy into the idea that "Jesus needed your mama more than you do" or "you should be happy your papa's in a better place." The clergy is respected when that respect is due -- there are good clergymen in Montgomery's books -- but their position does not make them perfect or unassailable. Elder relatives and neighbors sometimes are wise and sometimes hidebound. Characters are not perfect. Situations are suboptimal. And then comes this war, and...well. The situations remain occasionally suboptimal, but still.

One of the things I found interesting is that when I was a kid, I didn't question the romance in the book. Looking at it now, I think, "They have a total of two brief conversations? That's it?" I mean, sure, they had backstory: their parents had been friends since before these characters were born. But the male lead, Ken, was of an age with Rilla's older brothers. At the time I first read it, it seemed incredibly natural that of course Anne's daughter would marry Persis's son. And now, I think, how can these people get married? They've barely talked to each other!

Ah well. I would have more to say, but Timprov convinced me to take some time off, and I have had a brilliant notion of what to do with it. Whether I get to indulge that brilliant notion remains to be seen.

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