Walter is a kindred spirit. This is no surprise, since he is Anne Blythe’s son. He is a sensitive soul, deeply aware of beauty and pain. Walter illustrates the difficulties of being a male HSP not just in a world that didn’t tolerate the emotions of men, but in a world thrown into the chaos of war.
“I wouldn’t mind [death] if it didn’t hurt,” muttered Walter. “I don’t think I’m afraid of death itself…but to keep on dying! Rilla, I’ve always been afraid of pain, you know that…I ought to go-I ought to want to go-but I don’t-I hate the thought of it-and I’m ashamed-ashamed…I should have been a girl,” Walter concluded in a burst of passionate bitterness.
“Walter, one time I heard father say the trouble with you was a sensitive nature and a vivid imagination.” Rilla’s words capture difficulties Walter faces within and without. Being sensitive and emotional was tolerated in some ways if you were a woman, but a sensitive man! That was not acceptable. Faced with the horrors of enlisting and a soldier’s life, Walter stumbles through his own inner torment and self-reproach. While in college, he receives the white feather of cowardice. He just cannot come to grips with a life of killing, of enduring filth and misery and death and loss, as quickly as many do.
But when Walter finally does overcome his fears, he enlists with a clear head and purpose. Being sensitive may make him feel pain more acutely, but it also enables a courage and purpose that not every man possesses.
Walter looked about him lingeringly and lovingly. This spot had always been so dear to him. What fun they had all had there lang syne. Phantoms of memory seemed to pace the dappled paths and peep merrily through the swinging boughs-Jem and Jerry, bare-legged, sunburned, school-boys, fishing in the brook and frying trout over the old store fireplace, Nan and Di and Faith, in their dimpled, fresh-eyed childish beauty…They were all there around him…and they said to him, those gay little ghosts of other days, “We were the children of yesterday, Walter-fight a good fight for the children of tomorrow.”
Making the difficult decision, Walter learns, actually brings him a measure of peace. In the end he values the cost all the more because of being capable of feeling it deeply. As he writes to his sister Rilla,
“I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing-but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future-for the workers of the future-ay, and the dreamers, too-for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfill.”
I am grateful for stories and characters who mirror life in ways like this. Walter’s story reminds me of the cost others have paid for freedoms I so often take for granted. His story reminds me not to take my gifts for granted either. I may or may not ever use them exactly how I envision, but if they can be used to help one person, I too will be satisfied.
All quotes from Rilla of Ingleside.