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This post is late, late, late, because I've been sidetracked, both by work and by how much I want to say about A Girl of the Limberlost It continues to be the story of Elnora's strange and unsettling mother, and not very much of Elnora, though everyone still acts as if she's the most important person in the world. Kate is such a wonderful, strange and awful character that she commands the whole book and poor Elnora doesn't have a chance.

There will be spoilers below.

A Girl of the Limberlost is a fascinating and a frustrating book. The settings are rich and specific about half the time, the pacing is odd, Elnora constantly seems like she should be lovable but mostly isn’t. This isn’t just due to the cataracts of unqualified admiration that come pouring in from all quarters; LMM heroines get plenty of that and still manage to be human beings most of the time. I think it’s that Elnora is given so little opportunity to show a personality apart from her virtues, and the narrative doesn't seem to recognize that her virtues are not always appealing. I loved her spirited rebuff of Phillip Ammon, the soppy and emotionally confused Love Interest, and her concern for his straw fiancee. On the other hand, I can’t understand how responding to an innocent remark about her nice new clothes with a lecture against charity failed to raise the hackles of any of her high school classmates. Can we really believe that no one at Onabasha H. S. was ever jealous of Elnora's apparently effortless success in the classroom, or affronted by her habit of ladling out wisdom and smiling knowingly, or resented her poise enough to spread a malicious rumor?

But this isn’t the story of Elnora at high school. Elnora’s high school experiences are disappointingly glossed over. There are not many high school characters at all, and they appear briefly and functionally; we're told that “Elnora loved those girls and boys,” but we don't get to meet them. Once Elnora gets her clothes sorted, we’re meant to believe that she glides seamlessly into the social life of the High School and everyone accepts her as one of themselves, only prettier and better. She works to collect butterflies and other specimens, she works hard at keeping up socially and being dressed, and she works at her subjects, all primarily out of sight of the reader. When she discovers a talent for the violin, she works at that, too, and is so good at it that she is chosen as a soloist for the school orchestra.

I was warned about the Little Billy subplot, but I actually enjoyed him a lot. For several days in a row a grubby kid guilts Elnora into giving him her lunch – all of her lunch! once trading her a long piece of old baloney for all her chicken pieces and salad and cake, which he shares with his less-extroverted siblings and their dog. One thing leads to another until Billy is adopted by Wes Sinton, to the dismay of Maggie who really ought to have been asked first. Little Billy is a bog-standard Cute Ragamuffin character in most respects, but I enjoyed his sharp unsentimental intelligence and total shamelessness about bilking Elnora out of her lunch – he quickly realizes that Elnora can't resist an opportunity to be generous and has no qualms about using that to his benefit. Eventually Elnora's friends at school find out and bring her a replacement lunch – one of the very few points at which we see Elnora's friends at all.

Billy's vintage animal cruelty is less entertaining: his treatment of Maggie's kittens is genuinely a little horrifying.This is treated as par for the course for grubby scapegraces, but also as something cruel that Billy has to learn not to do. At one point, Kate offers to adopt Billy just to make trouble for the Sintons, and Elnora has to watch with sinking heart as her mother promises him all the love she never bothered to give Elnora. Luckily, it doesn't pan out, and Billy thrives at the Sinton's.

When Elnora learns she has a talent for music, Wes hunts up her dad's old violin and she learns to play it in secret – hiding it from her mother, who hates violins for obscure personal reasons.

In no time, Elnora is about to graduate, and high school protocol requires that she have all new clothes, one new outfit each for three events. Kate says she'll get on it, but on the morning of the first event, Elnora finds one of her existing dresses washed and ironed on the bed. Her heart breaks, she says she can't wear it, and goes to have a dress altered for her at the last minute (it belonged to the Swamp Angel, one of the people from the book that this is a sequel to, whom this book never succeeds in making the least bit interesting).

The idea that Kate washing and ironing one of Elnora's older dresses for the ceremony would count as the final straw in neglect and meanness is a little hard for me to wrap my head around. We're supposed to understand completely once it's revealed that Elnora is leading the graduation exercises, but who would notice that the dress wasn't new? Wouldn't everyone just be looking at their own children? Are there no other cash-strapped kids at the high school? Is there no one here on scholarship who can't afford three separate outfits for the graduation ceremonies? Of course if Kate was just going to wash an old dress she should have said so in the beginning, but I'm kind of with her on not understanding what the big deal is, and a little mad at Onabasha High School for encouraging this kind of competitive extravagance. Because I'm actually Aunt Elizabeth Murray, I guess.

Anyway, Kate is crushed:

She was too late! She was not needed. Another woman was mothering her girl. Another woman would prepare a beautiful dress such as Elnora had worn last night. The girl's love and gratitude would go to her. Mrs. Comstock tried the old process of blaming someone else, but she felt no better. She nursed her grief as closely as ever in the long days of the girl's absence.

Oh, Kate, you treacherous swamp of a person. Why on earth would you wait nineteen years to start worrying about another woman mothering your girl? Why is time such a bottomless pool?

Kate tries to make it up by giving Elnora her old petticoats, with a wonderfully terse note:

”I was married in these,” it read, “and I had intended to be buried in them, but perhaps it woud be more sensible for you to graduate and get married in them yourself, if you would like. Your mother.”

Poor Elnora of course is overjoyed and confused; she gives her mother one of the framed photographs she had made for her friends and a framed moth – but the delicate truce is smashed when Kate kills a valuable moth, thinking it's “some deadly, stinging biting thing.” – Kate's stubborn ignorance about the life of the swamp is just another of her mysteries. Maggie finds out about it and blurts out the secret she and Wes have been keeping from Kate for almost twenty years: that Robert Comstock only drowned in the first place because he was sneaking back from an assignation with a neighbor and trying not to be seen. “I won't see her slighted and abused another day on account of a man who would have broken your heart if he had lived. Six months more would have showed you what everybody else knew.”

Elnora's mother is Allan Burnley in reverse: Dr. Burnley neglected his little daughter Ilse because he thought her mother ran out on him when she didn't; Kate neglects and is actively hostile toward Elnora because she idolized her father, who died trying to cover up his own infidelity. Never mind that both Ilse and Elnora were babies who had no control over the situation! Never mind that they were completely separate people!

Anyway, Maggie tells Kate the truth about Robert Comstock, she goes and yells at the other woman for a while and then throws out all of Robert's clothes and makes up her mind to do right by Elnora, but for real this time. She overcompensates a little, Allan Burnley style - especially after she goes to the bank and learns that she's had a whole pile of money there all along. For all their hardy natural virtues, the Comstock women have a strange inability to check their own bank balances. I'm inclined to feel it's too little, too late – but what else can you do, when you have too little and come too late? The narrative puts a lot of effort into sparing Kate and Elnora the burden of lasting consequences from Kate's neglect and hostility – we constantly hear that Elnora is smarter, sounder, and more compassionate than her classmates from happier homes, and it's sometimes implied that she turned out as well as she did because she had a hard time of it. So now that she's reaped the benefits of deprivation, she can enjoy her mother's love at no risk of being “spoiled”? I would like to point out that this is an extremely unreliable method of making saints, and that I do not recommend it.

Why did the Sintons let it go on for so long, when they knew that Kate's love of Robert was a blight on her life and Elnora's? Maybe they thought she wouldn't believe them, or that it would make things worse for Elnora. Everyone takes it for granted that Elnora will be forgiving, because a mother is a mother – and in fact she is, poor thing. As awful as the situation is, I can't help liking the new Kate, who is as sharp-tongued and inimical to nonsense as the old Kate, only warmer and in better humor. I like that she doesn't get the hang of being a good mother right away – she can still be unthinkingly dismissive of Elnora's interest and ambitions, and just as impervious as ever to having anything explained to her.

But will no one spare a word for the swamp? Kate hung on to her land for twenty years while oil wells and draining ate into it all around her because it was Robert's land. Now her feeling for Robert is dead or nearly dead, and our lone shrill voice for conservation is gone. Meanwhile, “The swamp is almost ruined now [. . .] The maples, walnuts, and cherries are all gone.” The trees are vanishing, the creeks and rivers drying up, and everywhere the open land is scoured by wind, while Elnora, her mother, and their new friend Phillip Ammon struggle to collect specimens of an ecosystem falling apart beneath them.

The next post will deal with the Curious Episode of the Straw Fiancee – which felt tacked on while I was reading it, because I was expecting a book about Elnora going to high school and teaching natural history to “the grades,” but which actually takes up the entire second half of the book.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 10th, 2017 09:45 am (UTC)
Sis has an old copy of that somewhere... I think if I recall, she said she doesn't actually like it, but still found it oddly satisfying to read.

I think I know what she means... maybe.
May. 10th, 2017 01:21 pm (UTC)
I think I know exactly what she means! I'm not sure what exactly makes this a good book. It's confusing and unsatisfyingly paced and I don't actually like any of the characters except cruelly self-absorbed Kate and sometimes Elnora, but I've been considering buying a copy to keep around just in case. . .

I think it's the feeling that there's something in it I can't put my finger on.
May. 11th, 2017 05:54 am (UTC)
It was the kitten business that turned me right off Billy. There's thoughtless mischief like Davy Keith from Green Gables, and there's there's budding psychopathy.
May. 12th, 2017 04:17 pm (UTC)
The kitten business is pretty awful. Billy also describes punishing his dog for eating something or other in a way that made me wince. I'm casually interested in how attitudes to animal cruelty change over time, so for me it had the redeeming quality of being a report from somewhere in the middle of a major cultural shift - tying up the kittens isn't being presented as totally harmless funny mischief anymore, but we're still supposed to sympathize with Billy and forgive him for not knowing any better.

Which is a just long way of saying that it's totally understandable that the kitten business would put you off Billy! :(
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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