A Girl of the Limberlost // by Gene Stratton Porter

Here we are, Book #6 for 20 Books of Summer!  I am actually making great progress with this challenge, as I have read 12 of my 20 (although I’ve bogged down a bit this week – so scared to get sucked into the next Codex Alera book…!!!!), but I am suuuper behind on reviews!

girl-of-the-limberlost

//published 1909//

A Girl of the Limberlost is Gene Stratton Porter’s sequel to Freckles (which I have read several times, and reread earlier this summer).  It’s a loose sequel as only a few of the characters from Freckles reappear in this tale, although I think some aspects of the story would be confusing if you hadn’t read the first book.

On the whole, this book was not nearly as enjoyable as Freckles.  The story was much more disjointed and confusing.  The main character is Elnora, and when the story begins she is just getting ready to start high school.  At this time (early 1900’s), high school education wasn’t free.  Elnora’s mother is a widow and they don’t have a lot of money to spare.  Her mother thinks that education is really quite a waste, but has grudgingly agreed to pay Elnora’s tuition.

And this is where, right off the bat, things get confusing.  Basically, Elnora’s mother is really a jerk.  Her husband died before they had been married a year, when she was pregnant with Elnora.  He was sucked into a quagmire in the Limberlost, and Elnora’s mother watched him die, unable to help him.  Except later part of the story seems to be that she was actually giving birth to Elnora?  Or she gave birth and then ran to the swamp but wasn’t in time because of giving birth?  None of which makes sense, really, and it never does get clarified.

But apparently Elnora’s mother holds Elnora responsible for her father’s death, and has treated her badly her entire life.  Literally, the first sentence in the book starts us off with Elnora’s mother ragging on Elnora:  ” ‘Elnora Comstock, have you lost your senses?’ demanded the angry voice of Katharine Comstock as she glared at her daughter.”  There just isn’t any kind of background or explanation.  By the end of the first chapter, I found myself wondering if I had some kind of edited copy wherein the first bit of the book had been eliminated, because it felt as though I had jumped right into the middle of the story.

Elnora and her mother have a pair of close neighbors who live where the Duncans lived in Freckles.    The Sintons are good, hardworking folks.  They were unable to have any children of their own, but they love Elnora dearly, and they hate the way Elnora’s mother treats her.  But not, apparently, enough to do anything about it.  About halfway through the book, there is a HUGE reveal, in which Mrs. Sinton finally tells Elnora’s mother the truth about Elnora’s father (spoiler: he wasn’t that great of a guy), and Elnora’s mother suddenly goes through a complete 180* turn, declaring that her life of mourning her husband has been a waste, and suddenly she adores Elnora and can’t do enough for her.  So….  why didn’t the Sinton’s mention all this like 15 years ago…???!!

I don’t know, it was just a really confusing story.  Elnora’s mother is a character who makes no sense.  Sometimes she’s mean, sometimes she’s super nice, and she just doesn’t make sense.  I was consistently befuddled by her actions and words.  The Sintons are a little better, but their relationship with Elnora’s mother is weird, too, and despite the fact that they claim to love Elnora like their own daughter, it seems like they could have done a lot to make Elnora’s life easier with minimal effort on their part.

There is this whole story with these poor little children who are starving because their father is a drunk and doesn’t take good care of them.  Finally, Elnora and Mr. Sinton go to the see the children at their home and see if they can help them, and turns out that their dad DIED (as in, he is still in his bed and the kids think he is sleeping except he’s dead), and legit Mr. Sinton just takes the youngest kid home with him and they adopt him… and we never hear about the other two kids again.  We kind of assume that they get help, too…??  But snatching this kid away from his family seems really horrible to me, and it is totally presented as No Big Deal.  And again… the Sintons have always wanted children, so why didn’t they just take all three??  And also… hello, Mr. Sinton brings home a CHILD without consulting his wife first?!  And basically blackmails her into agreeing to raise him!?

The love story is ABSURD.  Handsome Young Man comes to the countryside for his health.  He tells Elnora that he is engaged to be married to a Beautiful Society Woman back in Chicago.  However, he then flirts with Elnora all summer, and at the end of the summer is basically like, “Um, so if you wanted to kiss me, that would be cool…” and Elnora is like, “No, Handsome Young Man, you must be faithful to your Beautiful Society Woman!” and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, okay, thanks for reminding me!!  Toodles!” and then he toddles back to Chicago like nothing ever happened.  Except Beautiful Society Woman gets angry at him about something stupid and scorns him in public, and then his love is as ashes, and he flees back to the Limberlost, and basically proposes to Elnora immediately.  She’s like, “Um.  Weren’t you engaged like yesterday to someone else?” And he’s like, “Well, yeah, but she is but an empty-headed Beautiful Society Woman.  I want a Real Woman like you, who doesn’t mind bugs and moths and swamps.”  Elnora, who is legit the only likable character in this entire book, is pretty much like, “Well, you’re going to have to wait a while because I’m not super convinced of your sincerity.”  Blah blah blah the summer passes, Beautiful Society Woman returns and causes trouble, and Elnora runs away and hides and doesn’t tell anyone where she is going, and then Handsome Young Man is SO DISTRESSED that she is gone that he almost DIES from worrying.  What.  Even.

But the NUMBER ONE REASON that this book drove me crazy was because Porter COULD NOT stop using the word “panted.”  I mean, seriously.  It’s like she read that word and thought it was nifty, and used it all the time, and her editor was like, “Gene.  Gene, Gene, Gene.  I like what you’ve got going on here but… don’t you think you should switch it up a little?  You’ve used the word ‘panted’ three times on the same page.”  And Porter said, “Hush your mouth.  There is NO BETTER WORD THAN ‘PANTED’.  IT IS THE ONLY WORD THAT TRULY EXPRESSES WHAT I AM TRYING TO SAY HERE.”

If they aren’t panting, they’re groaning or sobbing or crying.

  • “Such vulgarity!” panted Edith Carr.
  • “Nothing on earth could kill that!” she cried
  • “Don’t mention clothes,” sobbed Elnora.

It just got really annoying after a while, especially the word “panted.”  Every time I read it, I just pictured the speaker standing there with her tongue hanging out.

It wasn’t all bad.  There were still some good descriptions, and there could have been an interesting story if Elnora’s mother had made a bit more sense.  But on the whole, I definitely didn’t enjoy this book at anywhere near the level of Freckles, and I wouldn’t recommend it even to people who enjoyed that tale.  2/5.

Freckles // by Gene Stratton Porter

Well, my friends, the time has arrived!  My first review for 20 Books of Summer!  First, a brief update on the List!

20booksfinalMy 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…

As you can see, I am now on Book #5 (Life or Death), so things are tooling right along!

And now for Freckles. 

Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter

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.