Monday, April 10, 2017
I cried because of the power of well-crafted fiction to bring life to history.
I was a lonely 11, 12 and 13 year old who grew up a quarter mile from the road, and for me, during those years, Anne of Green Gables wasn't just a character in a book; she was my best friend. I would refer to the people of Avonlea as though they walked among us.
"Just like Mrs. Lynde!" I fumed one day when my mother was complaining about a gossipy neighbour.
"Who?!" she puzzled,
"You know, Mrs. Lynde," and when she continued to look confused, "From Anne!"
She promptly signed me up for some activity involving real human beings.
The sixth book of the Anne series, Rilla of Ingleside, is about Anne's youngest daughter and is set during the Great War. James, the oldest brother, signs up immediately, and his faithful dog, Dog Monday accompanies him to the train, where it waits for his return. Waits for four years. Waits at the spot where he last saw his friend, who does return, unannounced, one afternoon months after all the other soldiers have arrived. The long-awaited reunion between dog and young man is a scene I have never been able to shake and one of the many reasons I love dogs so much, because I know there are dogs who would wait four years for their beloved to return.
Another of Rilla's brothers, Walter, is less anxious to go to war, but eventually signs up and serves and while at the front, writes a poem about his experiences. The poem becomes famous, reproduced and recited all across Canada. Yes, shades of Flanders Fields, although I think Walter died at Courcelette, not Vimy.
I was driving, listening to the speeches and songs, and I could see the Vimy monument in my mind's eye, and then I thought of the Anne story and the poem and the waiting dog and the futility of war and there I was, blubbering at 80 kilometres an hour on County Road 124. Not over actual soldiers or actual people, but over these characters, created as an amalgam of the people Lucy Maud Montgomery must have known, who were alive during the Great War, and the next war too. No doubt part of what she wrote was based on what she experienced.
I never met anyone from the war, but I knew Jem and Walter and Rilla and I suffered along with them, thanks to the brilliance of their author. That's the power of literature, even children's literature: to illuminate history, to make stories real enough to tell a truth and to move a middle aged lady to tears 35 years later.