Monday, December 5, 2016

Reviewing Gene Stratton Porter's "A Daughter of the Land"

When I asked for my own copy of The Girl of the Limberlost for Christmas last year, my request was fulfilled fourfold.  I opened up a box and looked up quizzically at my mom.  Inside was not only a vintage copy of The Girl of the Limberlost, but also another copy of Freckles, and then two books by Gene Stratton Porter I hadn’t heard of before: A Daughter of the Land and The Keeper of the Bees

“It was the same price to get a set as it was to buy The Girl of the Limberlost separately,” my mom explained.

This was fine by me. Though Gene Stratton Porter is not my favorite author, there is something comfortable and wholesome about her style of writing that I like to come back to after reading not-so-uplifting stories by Albert Camus or the like. I’ve read a lot of reviews by modern readers who think she’s preachy or predicable, her characters too saccharine or good to be true. 

And this to an extent is justified.  Gene Stratton Porter’s books are kind of like the Hallmark movies of Edwardian fiction. Which is why I was so shocked and uncomfortable when I read A Daughter of the Land.
Kate Bates, the poor protagonist with a rhyming name, enters the story by passing under a church window and overhearing the minister proclaim “The Wings of the Morning.” Not staying to hear the context of what the preacher was talking about, Kate continues on her mission to ask her older brother Adam for some money to go to school for a teaching degree. Her goal? To gain independence from her overbearing father and unloving mother, and to earn her own wealth after slaving away for her brothers’ inheritances and her sisters’ educations. As the youngest child, her mother expects Kate to live out her life as a dutiful daughter, taking care of her parents in their old age. 

But Kate is ambitious. She longs for the land she’s worked for, and hungers for the education she’s sacrifices to afford. She self-teaches herself until she’s more educated than Nancy Ellen, which causes her father to threaten to whip her. 

Since her parents are completely against her setting out on her own, Kate takes her own initiative and goes to her eldest brother. All of the Bates children live under the iron will of their father, and Adam is no exception. He refuses to give her the money, but his wife, the nonconformist Agatha, does it on a whim (after a little manipulation from her son). So Kate takes the money and essentially runs away from home, taking some of her sister’s fancy clothes with her. Even when she gets her own license to teach her father tries to control her, getting her a job near home (and nearer his influence) without her knowledge. But Kate has already taken a job further away and with better pay, and so forces her father to break her contract—and his word. 

In the town of Walden Kate settles down as a boarder for the cross, sneaky, and greedy Mrs. Holt. All of Mrs. Holt’s bitterness against her goes away when she finds out that Kate is the daughter of the rich landowner Mr. Bates, and suddenly her boarder seems like a prime candidate for marriage with her lazy son George.

After a bad start, George tries his best to charm Kate. He even goes so far as to try to be a hard worker in order to impress her. Kate sees George as a poor comparison with Nancy Ellen’s beau, the young doctor Robert Gray. But she takes advantage of his willingness to please her and puts him to work, giving him land-investment advice and helping him turn a scrubby lot behind his house into a profit.

Just as I expected Porter to cause her protagonist to somehow overcome this would-be cad and his shrewish mother, the story instead spirits Kate into a completely different situation. Nancy Ellen and Robert Gray get married, and Kate goes to their home in Hartley to help her less-efficient sister set up house. Afterward, wary that the Holts had their sights set on her and believing she could do better than marry George, Kate goes to a teachers’ course in Lake Chautauqua. For the first time in her life she splurges on a hat that is pure vanity…and immediately gets it ruined when she tries to wear it in the smog and wind of the train. 

Crying herself to sleep—she actually used credit on that silly hat, and now she is in debt over something she can’t even enjoy!—Kate suddenly realizes she’s hearing double, that some of the sobs are coming from the next room. She peeps into the next sleeping compartment to find an older lady in pain from a heart condition. Kate nurses her through the night and they become good friends. 

Mrs. Jardine is a sort of counterpoint to Mrs. Holt, being completely likable, sweet and motherly.  And like Mrs. Holt, Mrs. Jardine also has a son. John Jardine is rich and handsome and educated and devoted to his mother. It seems par for the course for a Gene Stratton Porter novel that after a few minor misunderstandings and surmountable problems, Kate and John will fall in love and get married and live happily ever after….

Except that’s not what happens. No matter how hard John Jardine tries, Kate can’t bring herself to marry him. To do so, she thinks, would put her under the same power of her rich husband as her Land King father had over her all her childhood. And she’s not ready to give up her independence. 

So Kate goes back to Walden and…marries George. I know. I thought I misread it too. 

I won’t give away the ending to anyone who might be a complete Porter fan and want to enjoy it and draw their own conclusions. But I will voice my own opinions in a vague, non-spoilerish sort of way:

-          Of the Porter novels I’ve read thus far, this is my least favorite. There are a lot of things that seem nonsensical, poor decisions that just seem wrong from the get-go, and the sudden plot twists seem to come out of nowhere rather than be a culmination of rising expectations and hopes.
-          Although I didn’t really find her likable, Kate is actually a rather complex character. She’s filled with ambition and independence, and yet makes choices that tether her to places and people she doesn’t really care about. Some choices seem a little against character for her, but then, in real life people make out-of-character decisions all the time.
-          There is a Porteresque romance in there, and I really liked it…except it wasn’t as satisfying as usual because it did seem shoehorned in.
-         This novel seems like a huge departure from Porter’s otherwise sweet characters and plots that revolve around characters and their love of nature. If Porter was consciously trying to break out of her sentimental mold, I’d say she did succeed. This story has a lot of realism in it, trials and problems that would seem brutally out of place in Freckles, and even the villains of the story (and they’re not all Kate’s father and the Holts!) are pretty three-dimensional and have some sympathetic qualities.

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