Monday, March 30, 2015

“A Girl of the Limberlost” by Gene Stratton Porter: A Review

Freckles is about a teenage boy looking for his identity and family.  A Girl of the Limberlost is about a teenage girl who knows who she is, who knows who her relatives are, but is nevertheless still searching for those relationships. 

In many ways this sequel…well, isn’t a sequel.  This second book exists in the same “world” as Freckles, but in it the Limberlost becomes almost a fairy tale environment.  The danger is mostly gone from the days Freckles had to worry about the swamp sucking him up, or poisonous snakes, or the murderous Black Jack and his gang.  Moving in and making herself at home in Freckle’s old garden” room comes highschooler Elnora Comstock.  Freckles, his Swamp Angel, and the Bird Woman are all there, but they are almost like fairy godmothers to Elnora. 

Elnora is bright, hard-working, compassionate and generous.  She lives at the edge of the Limberlost with her mother Katherine, who is cold, harsh, unloving and miserly.  For the purposes of Elnora’s fairy-tale life, Kate Comstock fills the roll of “evil stepmother” for most of the book, and most of the plot hinges on their mercurial relationship.  Against her mother’s wishes Elnora strives to educate and better herself, first by going to high school—though she finds herself a subject of ridicule for her hillbilly appearance—and then by earning money to go to college by helping the Bird Woman collect rare moths.

Monday, March 23, 2015

“Freckles” by Gene Stratton Porter: A Review

During the cold, grey winter, it felt so good to get back in touch with nature that after reading Rascal I continued deeper into an imaginary forest by reading Freckles and its better-known sequel, A Girl of the Limberlost.  Written by photographer, conservationist, and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter, these novels are set in the Limberlost, a marshy area of Indiana during the turn of the 20th century. 

In Freckles, the titular character is a one-handed orphan boy of Irish descent, just old enough to be released from the care of an orphanage.  Freckles has no money, training, education or family.  He doesn’t even have a name beyond “Freckles,” which is solely due to the liberal sprinkling of said spots across his face.  Because he has no education he has to look for physical labor to support himself, but because he was crippled as a baby, Freckles has the use of only one arm, and finding physical labor he can do one-handed makes his plight all the more hopeless.  Being crippled and nameless is the main inner struggle Freckles has to undergo during the book.  He’s convinced that his own mother crushed his arm, and the thought haunts him, making him doubt that anyone would ever want or love him.

But this longing to be loved, and the doubt that it is possible, is what drives Freckles to prove himself and to succeed.  By his mere strength of will he lands a job guarding the Limberlost for a local lumber company owned by the kindly and paternal Mr. McLean.   Freckles’ job is to protect the trees from lumber poachers such as the dreaded Black Jack, but even before he can fight against flesh-and-blood villains he has to overcome his own abject fear of the wilderness.  Like in any swamp there are dangers in the Limberlost, poisonous snakes, loneliness, spending the night in the dark in unknown territory.  After overcoming this fear, Freckles becomes so in tune with the Limberlost that he soon becomes enthralled to its beauty.  He makes friends with all the creatures, particularly the birds, which he calls “me chickens” and feeds throughout the winter. 

He also overcomes his ignorance, using his wages to buy books on birds, insects, and flowers.  He creates a sort of bower where he keeps his books, surrounded by a garden of wildflowers and a cathedral of tree branches. 

It is here that he meets the other main characters.  One day who should wander into his bower but the Swamp Angel, a young girl acting as an assistant to a naturalist photographer called the Bird Woman.  The Swamp Angel is beautiful, perfect, and brave, and Freckles, like everyone else who meets her, falls instantly in love with her.  He also meets the Bird Woman, Gene Stratton Porter’s “author avatar,” and helps her to find and photograph a rare pair of vultures whose nest is secreted in the middle of the Limberlost. 

Now, with his interests expanded beyond birdwatching to helping the Bird Woman find rare scientific specimens, along with his continual work in protecting rare lumber from being stolen by Black Jack and his gang, and most of all winning the love of the Swamp Angel and proving himself worthy to her family.  The main problem Freckles faces now is that the Angel is the treasured daughter of a wealthy, prominent man in the town, and he is a poor crippled orphan of unknown origin.  Set on a stage of beautiful and mysterious nature, this is a story that explores where a person gets worth, whether their identity is reliant on parentage or is entirely self-made.

Recommended Reading Age: I was maybe eight or so when my mom read it to me and my younger brother for school. Though I enjoyed it then, I think I was a bit too young, especially when it came to the squeamish parts of describing how Freckles lost his arm.  So for this book I’m going to recommend 10+.
Parental Notes: Aside from Freckles’ lost arm, there is a bit of violence in the book.  This could either be interpreted as scary for younger children, or an influence to rough-housing. 
Availability: Paperbacks are more prevalent, but it’s still possible to find hardcover at Abebooks.  This is the copy I have, which has a slightly “90’s paperback” cover illustration capturing the moment Freckles first sets eyes on the Angel.  I am constantly staring at that blue tree trunk in the background. 
Adaptations: None that I could find.

Monday, March 16, 2015

“Rascal” by Sterling North: A Review

When I finished reading 100 new, chapter-length books in a year last November, I did something I normally don’t do.  With all of December open before me, I actually re-read some books that I’d been meaning to re-read for some time.  Some books are just like a good glass of cool water on a parched throat.  They hit the spot so well that even as you lick your lips at the last drop, you wish you could go back and feel that sense of satisfaction for just awhile longer. 

But with so many new books I want to read—and as that list is constantly growing—I rarely get time to do more than peruse and skim the books I own and have read once before.  Some readers, I know, don’t re-read at all.  Others are almost the opposite; they find a series they love and re-read it every year, some of them rarely venturing into new territories at all.  My heart lies somewhere in the middle.  New books are like traveling.  Re-reading is like going home.  And with that longing for home in mind—especially around the holidays—I decided last December to read some books that my mom read to me when I was home-schooled.  It was a middle-ground: I’d heard the words, but technically I’d never “read” these books myself. 

Every Christmas I come down with what I call “Charlie Brown” syndrome.  A desire to get away from all the commercialism and lights, and get a feel of what Christmas really means.  I think that’s reflected in what I decided to re-read, as well.  And there’s no better place to start looking for a story of “a simpler time” than Sterling North’s Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. 

Rascal is a memoir of a year in the life of Sterling North, a boy growing up in Edgerton, WI during World War I.  Sterling’s childhood is far from perfect: his mother died, leaving him to an indifferent parenting style (almost an un-parenting style) from his aloof lawyer father, his brother is away at war, and his older sisters insist on meddling in his upbringing and preventing him from building a canoe in the living room.  With all these sources of anxiety, Sterling surrounds himself with friends of the four-legged variety for company and comfort: a Saint Bernard named Wowser, four adopted skunks, Poe-the-Crow, various muskrats and woodchucks, and of course the star of the story, a baby raccoon named Rascal.

I think this is where I added “raccoons” to my (long) list of favorite animals.  My family liked this book so much that when we got a cat, we named him Sterling (though in many ways the cat acts like the chirruping, nocturnal, and rambunctious raccoon more than the boy, especially when he likes to sit at the table or perch on my shoulder).  Rascal is clever, friendly, mischievous, wild, and hilarious.  Even re-reading it, I laughed out loud until I snorted when I read how he discovered sugar and, in typical raccoonian fashion, tried to wash a lump of it under water before eating it…only to end up searching his bowl of water frantically for the “lost” morsel.  As an adult, I of course know that raccoons do not make good pets, and are much happier in the wild than in a domestic environment.  Secretly, though, I still harbor the childhood desires to have a raccoon sleeping next to me under the open sky, with owls’ lullabies bouncing off the close-bent stars. 

If anything, though, Rascal also teaches that raccoons don’t make good pets.  Hilarous as Rascal’s antics get, North makes it clear that he was very much a wild animal, and only so much could be done to train him when his instincts were telling him to do things like eat neighbor’s eggs.  Soon Sterling finds himself in another predicament: all his neighbors hate his raccoon even more than his skunks, and some are even ready to shoot Rascal on sight.  He’s face with a choice: keep Rascal under lock and key and hope the clever creature won’t escape and get himself killed, or set him free and lose his most constant companion.

This is one of the few animal novels I’ve read where—and I don’t mind spoiling this—the pet doesn’t die at the end.  Almost every pet book I’ve read has been about a dog that dies.  This one has a bittersweet ending as well, mostly because as soon as Sterling took that kit out of its natural environment, he put himself in this impossible situation that happens whenever the two worlds of civilization and wilderness collide.  But it also ends like a last gulp of cool water: very satisfactory, and making one desire to experience it again for the first time.  This desire is impossible, of course.  Good thing, then, that it’s just about as satisfying the second time around, too.

Recommended Reading Age: Sterling is eleven in the story, so it seem the perfect age to read it the first time.  It’s not too scary for younger ages, though.
Parental Notes: References to both evolution and Christianity could be confusing to younger readers. 
Availability: It is still easily arranged to get a firstedition such as my hardcover.
Adaptations: Disney adapted this in 1969, just six years after the book won the Dutton Animal Book award.  It has the same feel as “Old Yeller” and “Pollyanna” and the myriad of other books Disney was pumping out in technicolor at the time, but for the most part it’s true to the plot.

Friday, March 13, 2015

What poets feel not, when they make,

            A pleasure in creating,

The world, in its turn, will not take

            Pleasure in contemplating. 

~ A Caution to Poets, by Matthew Arnold

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Books are a delightful society.  If you go into a room and find it full of books—even without taking them from the shelves—they seem to speak to you, to bid you welcome. They seem to tell you that they have got something inside their covers that will be good for you, and that they are willing and desirous to impart to you.  Value them much.  ~ William Gladstone

Monday, March 9, 2015

[He] glanced at the backs of the books, with an awakened curiosity that went below the binding.  No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.
~ Chapter 3 Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens