Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Girl of the Limberlost

It is the centennial of Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost - first published in 1909 - a fact I found out by surfing the internet. Coincidentally, last year was the centennial of Anne of Green Gables, another classic about a smart, individualistic girl who wins affection and respect through charm, warmth, education, and enterprise. Curiously, the heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost, Elnora, reminds me of Anne. Both have striking red hair (though Elnora's tends to Anne's coveted auburn shade), both have vocations (Elnora's is natural history; Anne's writing), both grow up on farms, and both teach before marriage.

A Girl of the Limberlost is a superb girls’ classic, sometimes classified as adult fiction, sometimes as children’s fiction. I didn't read this as a girl: Elnora, the American Anne of Green Gables, has such a harsh time that I might have rejected it. Elnora always must struggle, unlike Anne, whose life unfolds in a series of charming episodes. The most enthusiastic and articulate Amazon reader reviewers of A Girl of the Limberlost tend to be older: one reader-reviewer says she is 60 and has read it every year since she was 10. Janet Malcolm wrote a rather peculiar essay for The New York Review of Books about capitalism in Gene Stratton Porter’s novels - with which I disagree - but it was her essay which brought Porter to my attention.

The Limberlost is a swamp area near Rome City, Indiana. You can visit Porter’s 14-room cabin, which she designed and built after her husband discovered oil on his farm. Porter also began a career in nature photography in the wetlands - she didn't began to write till the early 1900s - and knew very well the birds, moths, and animals of the Limberlost.

So does Elnora Comstock. This intense, fascinating, independent character is a self-taught collector of moths. Frustrated by her limitations, she longs to further her education at high school. On the first day of school she sets out, already in tears, because her mother made her flatten her lovely hair.

Behind her lay the land on which she had been born to drudgery and a mother who made no pretence of loving her; before her lay the city through whose schools she hoped to find means of escape and the way to reach the things for which she cared. When she thought of how she appeared she leaned more heavily against the fence and groaned; when she thought of turning back and wearing such clothing in ignorance all the days of her life she set her teeth firmly and went hastily toward Onabasha.

She discovers that country students are charged $20 tuition, and all are required to buy their books. She goes home in tears: she does not know how to get the money. She has also been mocked for her old-fashioned calico dress and clunky boots. Although Elnora was the star of the algebra class, a popular girl changed Elnora’s name from Comstock to Cornstalk on the board with a mischievous stroke, and Elnora, hanging onto her poise, was astonished by the hostility.

Elnora can expect no sympathy from Mrs. Comstock, her crushingly verbally abusive mother - whose unpleasantness perhaps accounts for Elnora’s long hours studying moths in the swamp - who had hoped for Elnora’s defeat. She had deliberately withheld information about the tuition to keep Elnora on the farm. Mrs. Comstock, who lost her husband many years ago when he drowned in the swamp, is crazy: she refuses to listen to music - he was a brilliant violinist - and resents Elnora, as though she had caused the accident.

The neighbors, the Sintons, love Elnora and step in when Mrs. Comstock fails. They go to town to purchase the clothes Elnora needs - and there is a touching scene where Margaret Sinton tells a well-dressed crowd of high-school girls in a store that she needs clothes for a girl who has all the wrong clothes, and asks what material she should buy, what the style should be, and how they do their hair.

Elnora finds money to pay for the clothes - she refuses to be in debt. She embarks on an after-school career of collecting rare moths and selling them to the Bird Woman, a naturalist and authors. When high school ends, Elnora once more needs money. The valedictorian of her class, she needs three dresses for various commencement exercises and a ball. Mrs. Comstock once again fails her by not buying the dresses, triumphantly letting Elnora find out by putting out an old dress on the first day. Elnora, crushed, fInds refuge with her good friend the Bird Woman, who quickly swathes her in white odds and ends pinned and basted, and makes a new dress in the next few days.

There are other subplots: the Sintons adopt Jimmy, an orphaned wild boy, a drunk's son: Elnora introduces them. Later Mrs. Comstock reforms and finds redemption. And during the summer after graduation, Elnora meets a young man who has been ill who helps her collect rare moths she hopes to sell so she can go to college. There are complications in the romance and the moth collection, so Elnora ends up teaching natural science - a position tailor-made for her by the respectful school board. But the book concludes satisfactorily.

I didn't want this to end. I'll look forward to reading Porter's other books.


Heather Bond said...

This was one of my mother's favorite books when she was a girl in the 1930s. I've always wanted to read it and now it has moved way up on my TBR list. Thanks for the insightful review!

Mad Housewife said...

Heather, it really IS good. Some of the Amazon reader reviews and blogs on A Girl of the Limberlost are very enthusiastic.

By the way, I bought a copy of Olivia Crockett's Love & War in London: A Woman's Diary 1939-1942. It looks fascinating and I'll be reading tht soon.