Tuesday, January 23, 2018
A year or so ago on a grey winter's day (not unlike this one) something reminded me of a book my mother had told me she'd loved as a girl. Considering the fact that if my mother were still with us she'd be one hundred and two, you can surmise the book alluded to is an old one. I remembered its title but no more so my search wasn't an especially hopeful one. It turned out I couldn't have been more wrong - even more than a hundred years since it was first published 'Girl of the Limberlost' is still a favourite among many people. What I found that day, though, was that there are two Limberlost books, the first one called 'Freckles', both written by the self-trained naturalist, photographer and writer, Gene Stratton Porter.
Once there was an Eden in the Midwest of the United States, Indiana to be exact, called the Limberlost Swamp. Yes, it was a wetlands region with streams that flowed into the Wabash River that originally covered 13,000 acres of land. After being drained 1888-1910 by a steam-powered dredge, the area was cultivated as farmland for 80 years. In 1991 local citizen Ken Brunswick established "Limberlost Swamp Remembered," a group organized to restore some of the wetlands, because of their importance as habitat. The work has included removing or blocking drainage tiles, allowing water back on the land, and planting native species of trees, bushes and flowers. But 428 acres is nothing like 13,000 acres. Since photographs of the Limberlost as it is now can't portray the beauty of its primeval past, I chose a painting by William T. Richards (of the Hudson River School) to indicate the mystical quality of the region as it was in the late 1800s. The author's greatest goal in these and her other books was to persuade the public to care about nature.
'Freckles', a sentimental tale set in the early 20th century, offers contrasting characters, from vicious brutes to folks almost too-good-to-be-true. Decent people recognize the innate goodness and ingenuous soul of this love-starved youth. The Boss considers him a son; the kindly Duncans offer maternal love and warm respect; the Bird Woman appreciates his knowledge of Limberlost animals for her wildlife photographs. And then there is the Angel, a 16-year-old Irish-American girl of stunning beauty, quick wit, gritty determination and the ability to charm all she meets. Freckles frankly idolizes this princess-goddess, who delights in his private creation of a room in the forest 'Cathedral' and encourages him to develop his voice. But he is painfully aware that he is beneath her in every way (low birth, maimed body). He has no right to hope - he may only worship from afar..
You can think of 'Girl of the Limberlost' as an American Cinderella story, but with no glass slipper and plenty of moths. Gene Stratton Porter was at the peak of her skills when she wrote the novel, which starts off as a young girl's struggle against her mother's virulent hatred - and soon evolves into an enchanting little romance. Elnora Comstock has barely signed up for college when she discovers that she can't afford it - tuition and textbooks cost too much, and her shabby clothes are mocked by her classmates. Even worse, her half-crazy, malicious mother refuses to cough up any money. But she soon finds that she can pay another way - a strange lady called the Bird Woman is willing to pay money for moths, butterflies, caterpillars and chrysalids, which Elnora can easily find in a vast dangerous swamp called the Limberlost. And her friends Margaret and Wesley are happy to help her in any way they can - clothes, a violin - until the day when Mrs. Comstock comes to a shocking realization about her daughter.
Gene Stratton Porter's stories are full of hope, promise and goodness. Of course there are the usual bad elements as well that create enough angst to give dimension to her stories. I think her books reinforce that part of us which makes us better beings. They may well not be for you, but if dismal winter (this is Halifax where winters can be dark, wet, and very cold) has a grip on your mood, do yourself a favour and read one of her books and be transported into a different world, one where goals were clearer.
“We are only the trustees for those who come after us.”
- William Morris
'The Well at World's End' is next on my list.