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osprey_archer gave me a list of books to read in exchange for a donation to the ACLU, and A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter was one of them. You can also sponsor a post with a $10 donation, if you would like to find out what I think of any book. This is Part 1 because I'm only four chapters into A Girl of the Limberlost. Part Two will happen next week.

Elnora Comstock lives in the swamp with her sad, mad, bad mother Kate, who doesn’t want Elnora going to high school and doesn’t mind withholding important information (like whether or not you have to pay for books) in order to ensure that Elnora is extra humiliated on her first day. But Elnora is determined, even though her clothes are all wrong and she has to walk three miles to town. What's three miles? She walks all over the back country anyway, collecting moths and things; she might as well walk to the big stone high school and get an education. Elnora has some hopes of becoming a schoolteacher and using her specimens in the classroom. But her mother, who was a teacher herself before she was married and widowed in quick succession, has no patience for Elnora or any of her dreams.

Elnora hides her lunch in a box under the bridge so she won't have to carry it in an unfashionable pail, but she looks so outlandish anyway with her thick shoes and her long skirt that she might as well have taken the pail, too, and saved her lunch from being stolen. Her first day at school could have been a lot more awful – almost no one openly taunts her for her clothes, for example, though someone does change her name on the board from Comstock to Cornstalk – but it’s hard to have a sense of perspective when you’re sixteen. She learns that textbooks have to be purchased and there is an additional tuition of twenty dollars, and almost gives up. It's not so much the cost as the betrayal. Why didn't her mother tell her? Why did she trust her mother enough not to find out for herself?

On her way home, she meets her neighbors, Wes and Maggie Sinton, who have looked after her for many years and would really like to buy her some things for school, especially since their own children died young of diphtheria. Elnora’s principled stance against charity is frustrating here, and a little inconsiderate of Wes and Maggie, who would get as much enjoyment out of buying nice clothes for Elnora as Elnora would out of having them, and probably a little more. I have to cut her some slack because of her upbringing, but I hope at least part of this book will be about Elnora learning to accept gifts. It might not, though.



Wes and Maggie try to assure Elnora that her mother really does love her, but there’s been no hint of it elsewhere in the text, not even the kind of unhealthy strangler-vine possessiveness that led Mrs. Kent to kill her son Teddy's pets in Emily of New Moon. There's no undertone of us-against-the-world in her abusiveness, and hardly any even of being for Elnora's own good. Kate hasn’t actively kicked Elnora out of the house, and she packed a lunch for her on the first day of high school (possibly just because she thought the pail would be extra embarrassing) but otherwise shows no interest in her at all beyond making her comb her hair before she leaves the house.

"May I kiss you goodnight, mother?" she asked lightly.

"Never mind any slobbering," said Mrs. Comstock. "I should think you'd lived with me long enough to know that I don't care for it."

"Well, I'd love to show you in some way how happy I am, and how I thank you."

"I wonder what for?" said Mrs. Comstock.

Kate is an interesting character in part because she’s so unpoetic. There’s nothing picturesque or economical about her rants; they go on for paragraphs at a time and are mostly repetition.

"Ten dollars!" cried Mrs. Comstock. "Ten dollars! Why don't you say a hundred and be done with it! I could get one as easy as the other. I told you! I told you I couldn’t raise a cent. Every year expenses grow bigger and bigger. I told you not to ask for money!"

"I never meant to," replied Elnora. "I thought clothes were all I needed and I could bear them. I never knew about buying books and tuition."

"Well, I did!" said Mrs. Comstock. "I knew what you would run into! But you are so bull-dog stubborn and so set in your way, I thought I would just let you try the world a little and see how you liked it! [. . . ] Anybody but an idiot mooning over a book or wasting time prowling the woods would have known you had to pay. Everybody has to pay for everything. Life is made up of pay, pay, pay! It’s always and forever pay! If you don’t pay one way you do another! Of course I knew you had to pay. Of course, I knew you would come home blubbering! But you don’t get a penny! I haven’t one cent, and can’t get one!"

Partly this is just a reflection of Stratton-Porter's writing style, which is inclined to let people explain themselves a lot (or try to). But the combination of overbearing self-pity and complete indifference to her daughter’s wellbeing is terrifically uncomfortable. Even Carrie’s mother in Carrie had the decency to warn her daughter about the risks of high school as she understood them.

Incidentally, after this outburst, Elnora expresses her anger by coolly informing her mother that she will do all the chores herself, never mind getting up. Which means she isn’t done with them until ten o’clock at night. There’s something appealing about this tactic ("I'm so much better than you think I am, watch me be better than you") but I hope Elnora finds a way to get back at her mother that 1) doesn’t completely take up all the time she needs for schoolwork, and 2) maybe is a little clearer in intent? I'm not at all confident that Kate is going to process this sick burn in the spirit intended.

Luckily, Elnora just happens to have been collecting arrowheads, butterflies and moths in tremendous quantities, and a couple of collectors in town just happen to be offering generous sums for all of these things. Meanwhile, Wes and Maggie have gone shopping and bought loads of clothes and shoes (I like the scene of Maggie interrogating the high school girls about their clothes). Elnora comes home late with her roll of cash and a skirt full of arrowheads to wash for sale, and finds Maggie making a stylish new school outfit for her. Of course she insists on paying them back, because Elnora couldn't possibly take gifts from the people who practically raised her, but they pretend the clothes were cheaper than they were to make up for it.

There's an odd scene where Kate takes the bucket of arrowheads away to wash, and is heard laughing. At first I thought she was going to dump them all in the swamp, but on reflection maybe she’s just glad about the money. With Kate, who can say?

Oh, and there’s an even odder scene in which a local man sneaks into Elnora's shed, steals the money she's hidden there, then sneaks around to peep into her bedroom window?

He could see the throb of her breast under its thin covering and smell the fragrance of the tossing hair. He could see the narrow bed with its pieced calico cover, the whitewashed walls with gay lithographs, and every crevice stuck full of twigs with dangling cocoons. There were pegs for the few clothes, the old chest, the little table, the two chairs, the uneven floor covered with rag rugs and braided corn husk. But nothing was worth a glance save the perfect face and form within reach by one spring through the rotten mosquito bar. He gripped the limb above that on which he stood, licked his lips, and breathed through his throat to be sure he was making no sound. Elnora closed the book and laid it aside. She picked up a towel, and turning the gathered ends of her hair rubbed them across it, and dropping the towel on her lap,tossed the hair again. Then she sat in deep thought. By and by words began to come softly. Near as he was the man could not hear at first. He bent closer and listened intently.

BUDDY you are not SUPPOSED to hear because she is talking to herself, alone in her bedroom. Just because you are physically able to climb her tree and listen in on her thoughts does not mean you should. Unfortunately, our peeping Tom does not fall out of the tree, break his leg, and have to lie there until morning, preferably with chickens and insects wandering all over him. He waits for Elnora to put out the lights, then heads back to her shed, where he guards the money all night, then puts it back in its box with a note.

Before his eyes swept the vision of the slender white creature with tossing hair. He smiled, and worshipped it, until a distant rooster faintly announced dawn.

Stop that. >:(

One potentially sympathetic thing that is treated as unsympathetic, or at least a little unhinged, is Kate's refusal to sell timber and oil rights on her land.

"Cut down Robert’s trees!" shrieked Mrs. Comstock. "Tear up his land! Cover everything with horrid, greasy oil! I’ll die first!"

It's not clear yet what the ecological position of this book is going to be. It's 1909 or a little before, which means ground oil is becoming a hot commodity, or has already become one and is getting more valuable by the minute. The Limberlost swamp is in the title and I’d expect the book to be ultimately sympathetic about the wish to preserve it. But it’s too soon to tell.


So far, so fascinating. I don’t particularly like Elnora – I feel bad for her and I feel impatient with her blanket refusal of “charity” (as a kid I would have accepted it as a virtue, but now I relate far more to the gift-givers) – but I don’t have much of a sense of her as a person. There are brief glimpses – when she sasses back to a high school student who is rude to her, then immediately reproves herself for making an enemy first thing, her aforementioned attempt to heap coals of fire on her mother’s head – but she’s not yet a vivid character. Nor, really, are Wes and Maggie – total sweethearts with sympathetic motives, yes, distinct people, not so much.

Kate stands out, mainly because she’s so unlike a book character, and so like an impossibly querulous person you might meet in real life: indifferent to your sympathy, impervious to life lessons or night-visiting ghosts, unbeautiful in her suffering except perhaps in her own mind. Will she learn to love again? Maybe, but I'm not sure how much it'll help. It's easy to embrace Ebeneezer Scrooge because he never had any children.

One thing I don’t know, because I’ve avoided looking at anything that might have spoilers in it: is this a sequel? We keep getting references to background characters and events that are not explained. “Across the fence and field, along the old trail once trodden by a boy’s bitter agony, now stumbled a white-faced girl, sick at heart.” What boy? There’s no further or previous mention of him, unless it’s the “Freckles” from whom Elnora inherited her shed and whose story “we all” are supposed to know, according to Elnora’s conversation – her dead father Robert? Maybe it will all be explained later, but that abrupt and mysterious “boy” suggests an ongoing series of Limberlost Adventures in Capitalism. We’ll see! (maybe).

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
todayiamadaisy
Apr. 23rd, 2017 01:42 am (UTC)
Oh my goodness, this sounds familiar! I read this a few years ago and wondered about Freckles too. He does turn up later, along with his wife, the Swamp Angel, in a way that made me think I was supposed to punch the air, saying, "Yeah, the Swamp Angel!" That's when I was motivated to find out that this is indeed a sequel to a book called Freckles, which presumably tells the story of how he came to marry someone called the Swamp Angel.

I've just looked up what I wrote about it, and I apparently liked both Kate and Elnora's fiancé's ex-fiancée for being funny in the last chapter (I have no recollection of that character), and I loathed a little brat called Billy.
evelyn_b
Apr. 23rd, 2017 03:41 am (UTC)
All right! There's definitely some sequel-esque language so far that is . . . noticeably less stand-alone than I would expect from a reasonably literary juvenile sequel of this period, though maybe I've just been spoiled by L. M. Montgomery.

Billy has been threatened in the Table of Contents, but has not yet appeared. I hope the sneaky-pete dude who watches Elnora through her bedroom window (his name is in fact Pete) doesn't turn out to be Elnora's fiance, though; I don't like peeping Toms.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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