First off, let me confess something: I picked up A Girl of the Limberlost thinking I had read it (and loved it) as a child, per the instructions for this month’s Children’s Classics bookclub at 5 Minutes for Books.
However, I was only about a quarter of the way into the book and realized that I was blissfully unfamiliar with the plot. Oh. I must’ve only read its prequel, Freckles, at the recommendation of a book-loving cousin and then stopped without learning the extent of Freckles’ influence in the subsequent book, A Girl of the Limberlost. No matter–I think I enjoyed it every bit as much now as I possibly could’ve enjoyed it as a child.
(Actually, I don’t think I’d even classify this book as children’s literature, although it is certainly tame enough by today’s standards for the youngest of readers who might be interested, even with its dysfunctional families, romance, and broken engagements. However, because of the age of the protagonist, Elnora Comstock, and the phase of her life this book is about, I think it’s better described as young adult literature.)
A brief synopsis: Elnora Comstock, the sixteen year old daughter of a neglectful (and at times, abusive) mother, lives at the edge of Indiana’s Limberlost swamp, where she lives daily in the woods and the surrounding environs, learning the ways of all wild creatures, both flora and fauna. The story opens with Elnora going to the nearest town, Onabasha, to attend high school for the first time. Elnora is the stereotypical country girl, laughed at by her peers because of her naivete and her wardrobe. However, Elnora rises to the occasion through the help and love of her neighbors who have acted as her surrogate parents in the absence of her deceased father and her grief-stricken, half-crazed mother. What transpires after this is the story of a beautiful, extraordinary girl developing into the woman she was always meant to be. Along the way, many lives are affected by her maturity, her ability to love, and her love for and understanding of the natural world. Anyone who loves Anne of Green Gables or Little Women or any others of a host of literature written around the turn of the twentieth century will also love this book; it is similar in many ways to its sisters: an unspoiled country girl, through her hard work, character, and lessons hard won through suffering, wins the hearts of all she meets, even those who determined to hate her.
However, the real star of this story is the Limberlost, thanks to Gene Stratton-Porter’s beautifully descriptive writing. I can’t help but want to find a place untouched by man (where might that be, I wonder?), buy a plot of land, and raise my children there. (I know this isn’t possible, and furthermore, might not actaully produce a girl like Elnora Comstock, but a mother can dream, can’t she?) Phillip Ammon, Elnora’s would-be suitor, sums it up quite well in his speech to Elnora:
I understand what you mean by self-expression. I know something of what you have to express. The world never so wanted your message as it does now. It is hungry for the things you know. I can see easily how your position came to you. What you have to give is taught in no college, and I am not sure but you would spoil yourself if you tried to run your mind through a set groove with hundreds of others. I never thought I should say such a thing to anyone, but I do say to you, and I honestly believe it: give up the college idea. Your mind does not need that sort of development, it is far past it. Stick close to your work in the woods. You are growing infinitely greater on it than the best college student I ever knew, that there is no comparison.
This is a lovely, lovely book. I’m pretty sure this will make my Best Books of 2009 list. It has whetted my appetite for more Gene Stratton-Porter because I enjoy both her style and her message so much.
As a side note, I included two different book covers here because the copy I own of the book resembles the first one, and I wish it resembled the second. My five year stint as a public library aide when I was an undergraduate college student netted me lots of good books, and this is one of them. However, the pages are so brittle, they are literally falling apart. I think I missed a few important phrases (with writing like this, every word counts to me) because of this, so I’d love to add a newer copy of this book (or even better, an old copy in good condition) to my home library.
One more rabbit trail: A Girl of the Limberlost cannot help but remind me (and others) of Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Studydue to the obvious name similarity, but also because of the emphasis on nature and education. Do any of my fellow bibliophiles know if there is a connection?
The redemptive power of love shines brightly in A Girl of the Limberlost, and for that I give it a Highly, Highly Recommended.