When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in the nineteenth century. It all started with the "Little House" books. My grandmother read them to me, and they became the very first chapter books that I could read all by myself. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump to Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, and Anne of Green Gables.
Yet, there were so many things in those books that I just didn't understand. What was consumption and cholera? Why were puffed sleeves such a big deal? What did the food taste like? Why was Sara Crewe in India? What’s this Great War they keep talking about? There's one key thing that all of these books have in common: they are either semi-autobiographical or they were written as contemporary and, over time, have become historical fiction. Either way, they're an important source in learning about history--a source that most historians have ignored. To me, they should be considered in much the way memoirs or oral history are considered--perhaps not true in every detail, but more true than not.
By the time I got to college, I was convinced that I was going to be an English major and become a writer. Then, I got an internship at the Dallas Historical Society, going through their archives and writing educational curriculum. It took me almost another year to admit that I was really a historian, which surprised me at the time. Perhaps it shouldn't have--I had already spent most of my childhood in the past.
As I began to dive into the study of history, I began to make all sorts of random connections between the history I was studying and the books I had loved as a child. I kept returning to one book in particular, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery. Set during World War I and published in 1921, it’s one of the few novels about the home front. Recently, a new edition of this classic was published in Canada. Benjamin Lefebvre and Andrea McKenzie have put together a wonderful edition, complete with introduction, timeline, glossary of events, and some World War I poetry. It beautifully sets the story in its historical context. When I first read this book, I had so many questions about World War I, and it took years to find the answers. But now, all of those answers are in one beautiful package!
If I had to pick just one book to explain my whole thesis about kidlit history--that there is some history that is found in children's literature and can't be found anywhere else--this book would be the one I would pick. Primary sources on the emotions and daily lives of the women that watched and waited are hard to find. We tend to document the extraordinary. Though these women were living in extraordinary times, I don't think they realized how much their lives were changing.
Montgomery knew she was telling the story of the masses of Canadian women that worked at home and waited. She wrote "In my latest story, 'Rilla of Ingleside,' I have tried, as far as in me lies, to depict the fine and splendid way in which the girls of Canada reacted to the Great War--their bravery, patience and self-sacrifice. The book is theirs in a sense in which none of my other books have been: for my other books were written for anyone who might like to read them: but 'Rilla' was written for the girls of the great young land I love, whose destiny it will be their duty and privilege to shape and share." In their introduction, Lefebvre and McKenzie write "Rilla of Ingleside thus pictures, as no other war novel of its time does, a uniquely Canadian perspective about the women and families who battled to keep the home fires burning throughout this tumultuous era." Montgomery was a historian, even though her books are always shelved with children’s literature.
In my current job as a museum educator, I'm pulling children's literature in whenever and wherever I can. Using books that kids or adults are familiar with is a wonderful way to make connections with history. And in talking with colleagues, I know I’m not the only one that can trace a love of history back to literature first discovered as a child. In the last couple of years, I’ve started paying more attention to the threads of history woven through these books, and it’s been a fascinating journey. If you’re interested in coming along, please join me on my blog.
~ Melissa Prycer
Guest blogger Melissa Prycer has a MA in Public History. She is currently the Director of Education at Dallas Heritage Village. This piece was cross-published with the National Council on Public History's June 2011 newsletter.