Well, my friends, the time has arrived! My first review for 20 Books of Summer! First, a brief update on the List!
My original post about 20 Books of Summer, being hosted by Cathy746, is here.
Here is the list of 20. Links are to GoodReads, and titles that have been crossed off have already been read and are awaiting review…
Academ’s Fury, Cursor’s Fury, Captain’s Fury, and Princeps’ Fury by Jim Butcher
Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter, and its sequel, A Girl of the Limberlost
- Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, and its sequel, Sea Star: Orphan of Chincoteague
Crooked House, They Came to Baghdad, and Destination Unknown, all by Agatha Christie
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
- Life or Death by Michael Robotham
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
- The Fold by Peter Clines
- On the Fence by Kasie West
- The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly
- Money in the Bank by P.G. Wodehouse
- My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
- The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson
As you can see, I am now on Book #5 (Life or Death), so things are tooling right along!
And now for Freckles.
This book was originally published in 1904. Its setting, the great Limberlost Swamp, is in eastern Indian, between Fort Wayne and I-70, and parts of it are still a park today. I’ve always wanted to visit but never have gotten around to it, despite the fact that it is only a few hours away. Porter, a passionate naturalist, was unafraid to brave the terrors of this virgin forest. With a revolver and a sack of photography equipment, she spent a great deal of time exploring the swamp, photographing and making notes on its natural residents. Porter wrote numerous articles on nature, several nature studies, and a dozen novels. Even in her novels, Porter did her best to create a love not just for her characters, but for the nature that surrounded them.
Porter does an excellent job with this in Freckles. Her story of a lonely, orphaned young man, who is striving to make his way in the world, is balanced by the beautiful and terrifying vastness of the Limberlost. Without getting too carried away, she still manages to convey the beauty of the birds, flowers, and other animals that live there. Her sense of place is fantastic, and the setting is really a large part of what makes this story. In a way, the Limberlost is it own individual – and very important – character in the story.
Our tale begins with an unlikely hero –
Freckles came down the corduroy that crosses the lower end of the Limberlost. At a glance, he might have been mistaken for a tramp, but he was truly seeking work. He was intensely eager to belong somewhere and to be attached to almost any sort of enterprise that would furnish him food and clothing.
In this first chapter, Freckles (in his early 20’s or possibly late teens) comes across a lumber camp. He asks if they are seeking workers, and even though the cook, whom he approaches, says the boss couldn’t use Freckles, Freckles insists on speaking to the boss for himself.
“Mr. McLean, here’s another man wanting to be taken on in the gang, I suppose,” [the cook] said.
“All right,” came the cherry answer. “I never needed a good man more than I do just now.” …
“No use of your bothering with this fellow,” volunteered the cook. “He hasn’t but one hand.”
And so we are introduced to Freckles’s other great handicap. Not only is he orphaned and penniless, he struggles to find work because, as an infant, someone cut off his hand. In a passionate interview with the boss, however, Freckles convinces McLean to give him a shot. McLean is still logging a tract, but has purchased his next. Within the new tract are several very valuable trees, and he needs a man to walk the fence twice a day – seven miles per lap – to make sure that the trees are not stolen. McLean is extra concerned because another man from his crew recently quit, threatening to steal trees. Black Jack is quite the villain, a man who knows the swamp and its secrets, hates McLean, and intends to have his vengeance by stealing the valuable lumber…!!!
Freckles is hired, and despite his initial terror of the swamp – which is full of rattlesnakes, cesspools, insects, and other dangerous things – and a hard adjustment to hiking fourteen miles a day (!), he makes good. The rest of the story is Freckles, working hard to protect the lumber no matter what. Freckles is the ideal hero of the early 1900’s novel – loyal, upright, responsible, brave, truthful, hardworking. I’m not really sure why such heroes have gone out of style. Freckles is no sissy, and would make an excellent role model.
It’s a funny thing, but despite Porter’s enthusiasm and love for the Limberlost, no character in her story ever suggests that the swamp shouldn’t be logged. The attitude is definitely a reflection of its time. McLean is never presented as a villain or a terrible man – he is simply doing his job and trying to do it well – a job which involves logging acres of virgin woods.
In the course of the story, we also meet the Bird Woman, Porter’s way of writing herself into the story. The Bird Woman, whose name we never learn, is an avid naturalist who loves to photograph her subjects. For the summer, she’s taken on an apprentice of sorts, a young woman whose name we also never learn. When Freckles first sees her, he dubs her the Swamp Angel, and Angel she remains for the rest of the tale.
That Freckles falls madly in love with Angel should come as no surprise. That Freckles believes himself – a penniless, one-handed orphan, in case you’ve forgotten – unworthy of the love of a beautiful creature like the Angel, should also be no surprise. Still, despite using most of the normal cliches, Porter still spins an enjoyable little love story. The Black Jack angle is quite exciting, and if Porter falls into the trap of her good guys being very, very good, while her bad guys are very, very bad – well, sometimes it’s good to read a story without much ambiguity.
Although Porter is wont to go off into paragraph-long raptures regarding the beauty and goodness of the Angel, she has still written a character who is no simpering maid sitting about waiting to be rescued. Angel dashes about the swamp, shoots a gun, charms the bad guy so that she can escape for help, and then rides a bicycle miles across the rough corduroy to bring assistance to Freckles. She is brave, intelligent, kind, and basically all the same qualities as Freckles. Angel is always feminine but never weak.
The other characters are good as well, even when Porter doesn’t flesh them out a great deal. Freckles stays with the Duncans, and this first glimpse he has into a loving family home is touching without being pathetic.
There is plenty of action, with Freckles adjusting to the Limberlost, the love story between Freckles and Angel, a rare type of bird nesting in the swamp, and (of course) the evil Black Jack lurking about, waiting to steal trees!
For me, the weakest part of the story takes place after the action leaves the Limberlost. The part where Angel discovers Freckles’s heritage – through a series of perfectly-timed coincidences – feels very contrived and unnecessarily melodramatic. Consequently, the last few chapters saw me rolling my eyes a great deal.
Still, this story is an easy 4/5. It is classic literature for its time, an excellent story, and the setting is impeccably described.