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.