Category Archives: History

Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

Rilla of Ingleside

I’d read L M Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside before. A long time ago. It was the one I remembered well but couldn’t get hold of as I bought all the Green Gables books in English, thirty years ago, so I’m particularly pleased it’s one of the ones re-issued by Virago. It’s also the first book to bring the reality – for normal people – of WWI to my attention.

L M Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

I mean, if L M Montgomery couldn’t even fictionally keep Anne Shirley’s family safe from the war, then no one was safe. Which, obviously, was the truth. Before Rilla I had callously imagined that people back then were used to it and that it was a long time ago. And anyway, Anne lived in Canada, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the trenches.

Rilla of Ingleside is a sweet book, for all that it features the war so much that there is barely room for any romantic nostalgia for life on Prince Edward Island. Anne and Gilbert are growing old, and back then 50 was probably a lot older than it is now. So we concentrate on 15-year-old Rilla as war breaks out, and her brothers and friends go off to fight, one after the other, or at least to do their bit for the war closer to home.

The years between 15 and 19 were meant to be the best of her life. Instead they changed her completely; making her someone who could quite capably knit socks for the soldiers by the end of those four years. And a few other things, too.

Like what you can use a soup tureen for, and that it is possible to love an ugly baby that isn’t even yours.

There were just two things that made me cry, though. It was the neighbours’ little boy, Bruce, picking flowers for Anne (stupid Witch, crying again, now), and Jem’s dog, waiting all those years for his master to come back on the train. (Get me a hanky!)

You presumably know all this already, but when you love Anne and all those she loves, you do tend to go on about it a little.

Apache

Well, wow! That’s not all I have to say about Tanya Landman’s Apache (a very long overdue read for me; the details of which I won’t bore you with), but it’s a good start.

Tanya Landman, Apache

I wonder what it is about the 19th century United States that fascinates me so? Tanya is obviously drawn to write about it, and I like reading it. If I say it’s a relic of watching Westerns as a child, I’m probably going to upset someone, but I suspect it is.

Siki is Apache, and an orphan. Aged 14 when the story begins, she has just watched her 4-year-old brother killed by Mexicans, and she swears she will avenge his death. Siki has never been interested in women’s work, and strives to be accepted as a warrior, along with the young males.

Set in Arizona near the Mexican border, life as the Apache have known it is swiftly disappearing. It’s not only the Mexicans who are a threat, but the white settlers arrive in vast numbers, seemingly trampling on all that Siki and her people value.

Tanya mixes Apache daily life and rituals with the thriller that is their quest for revenge for the massacre of mostly women and children. Siki is skilled and brave, and for this she attracts both admiration as well as hate from various members of her tribe.

In one way you could decribe this as a fairly low-key story, were it not for the sheer horror of what happens to the Apache in their own country. And then there is the thrill of the skills they use against their enemies, not to mention the almost-not-there love story. It’s incredibly powerful.

I learned things I didn’t know before but should have, and I was thoroughly entertained by this history lesson. Both sides in this story can be seen to be right – and wrong – at the same time. If you are white, you can see why the white people behaved as they did, even if you feel shame over it. And the Apache are simultaneously both sensitive and seemingly callous, but because you’ve read what has happened to them, you can more than see their point.

Apache is really a very marvellous book. Tanya is hard on her readers, but rightly so.

Dot & Anton

Erich Kästner, Dot & Anton

This is another feelgood story by Erich Kästner, with iconical illustrations by Walter Trier. I settled in with this as a special Easter reading treat, thinking how ‘idyllic’ that period between the wars in Germany seems in literature. No sooner had I thought this, but I realised that it’s not true. There was a lot of poverty, as well as riches. Rather like now.

It’s about little rich girl Dot, who is quite an unusual child. When we meet her she appears, to her bemused father, to be selling matchboxes to the wall in her room. There is obviously a reason for this. Dot’s father is rich, her mother is a woman who shops and ‘has migraines,’ and they have several staff; a chauffeur, a maid and a governess.

Somewhere, some time, Dot has met Anton, who is a poor boy with a sick mother, trying to make ends meet while still going to school.

It’s fascinating to see how the two children get on, despite the differences in their lives. And in a fairy tale sort of way there are wicked crooks and brave children, policemen who do what policemen are supposed to do, and everything works out in the end.

It’s the moral happy ending which proves this is historical fiction and not set now. It would be less likely to happen today. Unfortunately.

The child in me wishes it could still be like this.

Dot & Anton is a quietly humorous story, and the moral musings by Erich Kästner at the end of each chapter make for a different style of book. He tells the reader what he believes, and then invites the reader to consider what their opinion might be.

Journey to the River Sea

When I came upon the audiobook of Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, as I was unpacking the children’s books a few weeks ago, I looked around, wondering where the ‘real’ book was. And then it hit me; I didn’t actually own a copy. I had borrowed it from the library to read (you can tell this was a long time ago, can’t you?), and returned it when I was done.

But I did buy the audiobook, because I thought it was such a marvellous story that Daughter might want to read it. This was when she was still a reluctant reader, while fully enjoying audio books. And Son was in full audiobook mode as well, although he did read too. We had a few years during which we as a family consumed an awful lot of cassette books, including the odd chewed-up tape. I remember this, as Eva Ibbotson’s book was one that got entangled, much to my horror. (Luckily the people who made it were happy to supply a spare cassette, meaning I didn’t have to buy it all over again.)

I remember buying a copy of the book to give away, too, so it’s not as if I was being particularly economical about it.

So there I was, filling my shelves with books, and no Journey to the River Sea. I looked at the cassettes, and I looked at the empty gap among my Eva Ibbotson books, and knew I needed to own this one.

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea

What’s more, I felt it needed to be the original cover; the cover of the book I had read, and none of the newer looks. But now that you can buy used books online, it is at least possible to choose your edition, and for a reasonable price.

The gap has been filled.

(As a matter of interest, has anyone who knows this book come across an ‘adult version’ of it? Some time after I’d first read it, I discovered an adult novel by Eva that sounded similar, so I read that too, and realised she must have written it first, since it had practically the same plot, only a little more grown-up. I’m glad she re-wrote it, as the children’s story is far superior.)

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

The Nowhere Emporium

The blurb on the back of Ross MacKenzie’s The Nowhere Emporium – and what a gorgeous cover this book has! – suggests it’s for fans of Pullman, Funke and Gaiman. I think it’s more Harry Potter than any of those, though I obviously won’t rule out that others will also enjoy The Nowhere Emporium. Simplified Harry Potter, I hasten to add, but you can tell that Ross has been influenced by JK, as she in turn had been influenced by a few others.

Ross MacKenzie, The Nowhere Emporium

This Tardis-like emporium is nowhere, in that it moves about. It changes where it is, and also when it is. Daniel Holmes is an orphan, and his life could be better. One day when chased yet again by some bullies, he finds a shop to escape into, which is where he encounters the mysterious Mr Silver who runs it.

He goes back a second time, and Mr Silver is rather surprised to find Daniel can remember his first visit. You’re not supposed to. His emporium is intended to entertain people, but he also makes sure he arranges for some suitable memory loss as they leave.

Daniel is clearly different, so Mr Silver lets him stay, just as when he was a young boy, he had a mysterious ‘benefactor’ who took him in and taught him magic. This was a very long time ago.

Soon after Daniel is apprenticed, things begin to change. Mr Silver seems different and then he disappears. Another mysterious man turns up instead and it’s for Daniel to try and sort things out and make emporium life normal again. If he’s got enough magic in him to do so.

Well, what do you think?