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One last post!

The death of the swamp in A Girl of the Limberlost is emotionally unobtrusive, part of the background albeit always part of the background, and no one laments it or tries to stop it from happening – it’s just a fact of the setting. Elnora looks up from her busy schedule one day and realizes it's almost gone. She needs money for college, but she can no longer count on finding moths to sell:

Men all around were clearing available land. The trees fell wherever corn would grow. The swamp was broken by several gravel roads, dotted in places around the edge with little frame houses, and the machinery of oil wells; one especially low place around the region of Freckles’ room was nearly all that remained of the original. Wherever the tress fell the moisture dried, the creeks ceased to flow, the river ran low and at times the bed was dry. With unbroken sweep the winds of the west came, gathering force with every mile and howled and raved, threatening to tear the shingles from the roof, blowing the surface from the soil in clouds of fine dust, and rapidly changing everything. From coming in with two or three rare moths in a day, in three years’ time Elnora had grown to be delighted with finding two or three. Big pursy caterpillars could not be picked from their favorite bushes, when there were no bushes. Dragon-flies would not hover over dry places. . .

After high school, Elnora gets a job teaching supplemental natural history courses for grade schools around the region. There’s an ecstatic scene in which she and her mother work out lesson plans, figuring out the best form of life to focus on for each month. It’s delightfully odd, like all the best parts of this book, and it’s also sad: this new program will teach children about the local ecosystem just as it’s being changed into something else entirely. The Limberlost swamp was a real place and it really did vanish, drained and cleared and smoothed over into a broad green and yellow patchwork of farmland and oil wells.

It feels strange for the book not to be “about” this just as it feels strange for it not to be “about” Elnora at high school or Elnora the traveling supplementary teacher. The things it is about – Christian forgiveness, good and bad blood, the value of Hard Knocks, and Living the Golden Rule – are not only less compelling than the swamp; they’re downright shadowy by comparison – smudgy sketches and half-filled outlines of stories. But it’s always been hard to write about the present when it’s falling away beneath you. I can’t blame Stratton-Porter for that.

In the final half of the book, once high school and the graduation ceremonies have been put to bed and Kate has had her day or two of painful revelation, Philip Ammon comes to town and the tale of the Straw Fiancee begins.

Philip Ammon is a young Chicago lawyer, ordered outdoors to recover from a long illness, who joins Elnora moth-hunting because he likes moths and because he finds Elnora fascinating. He brings some moth-catching knowledge of his own to the table, and together with Kate they have a jolly time of it. Philip also has a fiancée in Chicago, a charming society girl with “slated for demolition” written all over her.

“What interests Edith Carr? Let me think! First, I believe she takes pride in being just a little handsomer and better dressed than any girl of her set. She is interested in having a beautiful home, fine appointments about her, in being petted, praised, and the acknowledged leader of society. She likes to find new things which amuse her, and to always and in all circumstances have her own way about everything.”

“Good gracious!” cried Elnora, staring at him. “But what does she do? How does she spend her time?”

“Spend her time!” repeated Ammon. “Well, she would call that a joke. Her days are never long enough. There is endless shopping, to find the pretty things; regular visits to the dressmakers, calls, parties, theatres, entertainments. She is always rushed. I never get to see half as much of her as I would like.”

“But I mean work,” persisted Elnora. “In what is she interested that is useful to the world?”

“Me!” cried Ammon promptly.

Philip goes on being in love with both Elnora and Edith for a little while, a situation he handles rather badly. He tries to kiss Elnora before returning to Chicago, which offends and worries her, after all his talk of Edith, whom she guesses “would not want your lips to-morrow if she knew they had touched mine to-day.”

Elnora drew back and stared at him with wide eyes. “I’d strike you sooner!” she said. “Have I ever said or done anything in your presence that made you feel free to ask that, Philip Ammon?”

She also flatly refuses his request for “just one message from you to lock in my desk, and keep always.” Elnora’s a little bit of a prig, but I find her concern for Edith really likable here.

Philip gets back to Chicago with a splendid idea: Edith should have a dress made inspired by one of the beautiful moths he collected on his trip to Indiana! How romantic and original! She wears the dress to a dance celebrating the public announcement of their engagement. Everyone is impressed: what a lovely couple, what a clever idea! How admirable of Philip to have been thinking of Edith even in the wilds of Indiana!

Then, in the middle of a dance, Philip spots the big yellow moth that Elnora needs to complete her collection, and runs after it, shouting for a net and chloroform and making a big scene of rushing after it. Everyone thinks the moth is for Edith – how sweet! But Edith, who has been pointedly ignoring Philip’s rhapsodies about Elnora all summer, realizes the truth right away. The moth is for Elnora, and the dress is also for Elnora. Philip is in love with Elnora! She’s paralyzed with fury and humiliation, and responds by throwing Philip’s ring on the ground and refusing to speak to him. Meanwhile Philip pretends not to know, or maybe really doesn’t know, what the big deal is. Because Philip, at his very best, is an idiot. Philip! Maybe this plan to create a fashion tribute to your swamp crush at your own engagement party wasn’t so clever and romantic of you after all! Maybe you could have anticipated that it might cause some hard feelings! Or maybe not; people think and fail to think all kinds of things.

Philip and his dad consider Edith’s outburst to be completely damning of her character: “If she can act like that at a ball," Philip says, "before hundreds, over a thing of which I thought nothing at all, she would go into actual physical fits and spasms over some of the household crises I've seen the mater meet with a smile."

The italics are mine. Presumably this is not the first “scene” that Philip has witnessed from Edith, but it’s disingenuous to pretend it’s one of the petty ones. Not that they ought to get back together - Edith and Philip aren’t really compatible; it’s clear from his conversations with Elnora that he thinks she’s going to change from social butterfly into his very different ideal wife the minute they get back from their honeymoon, an assumption he has no evidence for whatsoever and doesn’t seem to have discussed with her in any way. They don’t seem very interested in each other in general except as flattering mirrors; that Philip never tries to find out why Edith was upset in the first place is just a symptom.

What's interesting is that Stratton-Porter invents this devastatingly intimate public putdown for Edith and then makes her "sympathetic" characters totally fail to understand it. Everyone at the party is in ecstasies over the moth dress and Philip's moth and how sickeningly happy he and Edith must be. Edith knows the truth and can’t hide that she knows the truth, but she can’t explain why she’s so upset without embarrassing herself further. She's trapped inside her wounded ego like a Cassandra of humiliation. It’s as brilliantly painful a scenario as Kate Comstock is a character. Does Stratton-Porter realize how good it is? She seems to think this is just what Edith deserves for being a shallow society brat and for taking Philip’s love for granted.

Philip and Edith are both a little awful and I’m sorry for them both, but I’m sorrier for Edith, who gets dozens of pages on how awful she is and how little she has to offer anyone. Edith's eventual redemption requires her acknowledging the superiority of Elnora and all of Elnora’s values, some of which are pretty subjective. Even the spaniel best friend character who never opens his mouth except to pledge fealty to Edith in all things is made to admit that what he really wants is “the smaller home of comfort, the furtherance of your ambitions, the palatable meals regularly served, and little children around you. [. . . ] You find out what you want to do, and be, that is a man’s work in the world, and I will plan our home, with no thought save your comfort.”

It's all very Tolstoyan. I don’t care about fashion or smart sets at all in real life, but every time a fictional character gets excoriated for “selfishly” preferring tailors to children I get defensive. Children are people, not cures for selfishness! What’s the difference between Elnora needing three new dresses for graduation and Edith needing to look her best at the engagement party? Have you considered that parties can be fun?

Philip gets zero redemption because he never notices that he did anything wrong, but he does get to marry Elnora, which is what they both think they want, so all’s well that ends well, I guess. I wish Elnora wouldn’t haul off and marry the first self-righteous rando who shows up to wring his hands over her “perfection” in an off-putting way. Or the second, if we count Pete the Peeping Tom from the first half of the book – but Pete’s “breeding” was insufficient and his spelling was bad, so he was never really in the running. Elnora, maybe you should do your supplementary teaching round and a year of college before you get engaged; there’s something to be said for having met more than five people your entire life.

There are a few other things to note: there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it temperance lesson (Billy feeds some old wine to pigs; it makes them drunk; Wes is horrified and makes Maggie throw it all out for the sake of Billy's soul!). I liked Philip’s sister Polly and her determination to be kind to whichever one of Phil’s fiancées he ended up with. Elnora gives an oddly eugenic explanation of the ethics of moth-catching:

“Sometimes I think it is cruel to take such creatures from freedom, even for an hour, but it is the only way to teach the masses of people how to distinguish the pests they should destroy from the harmless ones of great beauty, and secure propagation privileges for them.”

Oh, and the much-lauded Freckles and the Swamp Angel show up in the flesh, and are just as uninteresting as they were when they were stories.

One thousand thanks to osprey_archer for sponsoring this wonderfully weird, flawed but fascinating book! I might never have gotten around to reading it otherwise, and my life would have been a little poorer for it, like all those benighted suckers who smash moths in ignorance and/or leave creepy notes in other people’s sheds.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2017 01:09 am (UTC)
I liked Edith too. When I read it, I noted that she particularly amused me in the last chapter, so I went back and read the Wikipedia summary to work out why. And what it was, I think, was that she turns up with the moth as a gift? The one that moth experts Elnora and Philip have been trying to catch, unsuccessfully, for some time. She just goes out and catches it like it's no big deal, first try. What a talent the moth-catching world is missing out on.
May. 20th, 2017 02:19 pm (UTC)
Ha, it's true! Once she makes up her mind to catch a moth, it just happens. I feel like Edith is pretty competent in general and will do just fine wherever she goes.
May. 20th, 2017 02:05 pm (UTC)
I'm with Edith, sorry Philip and dad! I hope she ended up with someone better than Philip.
May. 20th, 2017 02:26 pm (UTC)
Edith gets a lot of flak from the narration and from her friends, but the result is that she's a more sympathetic character than Philip. It's either stated or strongly implied that she ends up with the best friend who's been frankly and openly pining for her for years. I hope they have a great time together and Edith enjoys doing whatever she enjoys, whether it's wearing clothes at parties or appreciating nature or driving around in big netted auto-hats.
May. 20th, 2017 03:35 pm (UTC)
Yay! I strongly support the hat wearing option;)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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