Monday, March 30, 2015

Reviewing Gene Stratton Porter's “A Girl of the Limberlost”

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.

I reread these books in a short space of time over the winter, and was struck more by the differences than similarities. While it was obvious that they were written by the same author, the tones are very different. Freckles is very much one narrative: Freckles has to go up against a few different obstacles, but for the most part it’s a cohesive novel. A Girl of the Limberlost is much more episodic; Elnora is faced with a problem, then overcomes it. She is faced with another problem, which she also overcomes. She makes enemies, she makes friends, and sometimes her accomplishments are undone. It’s all part of her trying to weave a relationship with her mother, whose affections thaw slightly, only to freeze over again out of fear and distrust of other people. 

It’s important, especially with literature from the 1800’s or so, to take into account how these books were originally published and read. Books like Dickens may seem melodramatic now, just because we’re effectively “binge-reading” episodes of fiction that were originally sent out bi-weekly. I can easily see A Girl of the Limberlost being published in serial form before coming out in one volume; in fact, while I recommend this book, I would also encourage the reader to only read one chapter or so a week, as if watching an episode of a television show. The effect of the hills and valleys of Elnora’s drama will be spread out, whereas when I was reading fifteen chapters at a time the drama seemed stilted and ill-paced. It’s like watching the season finale and then season premiere of a TV series on DVD; the drama is created by waiting, and when that waiting period is taken out of the equation, the pacing of the story is unbalanced. So, much as we readers try to gulp down large amounts of literature whenever we have a spare moment, books like A Girl of the Limberlost teach us that sometimes we have to take our time, to match the pace of the plot, and to “sip” on the story.

Recommended Reading Age: Although Elnora is a high-schooler when the story begins, I would recommend this to any child starting age 8 or so. 
Parental Notes: Elnora’s mother is very disagreeable, in order to justify Elnora occasionally being disrespectful. However, Kate Comstock herself is a very complicated character who undergoes a lot of development throughout the story.
Availability: Just in case anyone was looking to buy me an early Christmas gift, I actually don’t own this book.  
Adaptations: I’ve only seen the 1990 version, and a very long time ago at that.  I still vividly remember a scene where Elnora leaps out of bed, stands at the window, and plays “air violin” with gusto.  

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