Classic MG Discussion: A Girl of the Limberlost

September 25, 2015 Layla, middle grade, readalong 13

Genres: realistic fiction
Source: Purchased


Hey all, I’m especially happy to be hosting today’s discussion of Gene Stratton Porter’s 1909 novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. Come talk to me in the comments, since Wendy and Kim aren’t able to participate this month. I am eager to chat! This book was one of my childhood favorites (and I mean favoritest favorites) so I was really looking forward to revisiting this one. I remembered it being chock-full of food porn and also involving a lot of rhapsodizing about nature. Trees! Moths! Butterflies! THE LIMBERLOST! On those fronts, I was not disappointed.

As Wendy noted last month, it’s also the sequel to Stratton Porter’s earlier book, Freckles, which I also read as a kid. It’s not necessary to read Freckles to appreciate this book (which is good, I think, because Freckles is by far the weaker book), but if anyone’s interested in knowing a bit more about it, the plot moves as follows: Freckles, a young Irish boy who is an orphan and one-handed, is put in charge of guarding the trees of the Limberlost (for like a logging company of something). He’s a faithful guardian of the swamp and gets to know the birds and the wildlife, etc. He proves his worth; he wins the heart of Angel (his boss’s daughter, I think); and by the end of the novel, is revealed to be the long-lost son of like, Irish nobility. For A Girl of the Limberlost, you get hints of some of this, but in case you were wondering who this dude was and why he left all of his things to Elnora, now you know.

So, on to A Girl of the Limberlost! What kinds of things about the book struck you all upon your first-read or re-read?

I’ll say that for my part it was really odd to read this book almost fifteen years out. While I still enjoyed it, I think, during this re-read, I was more conscious of how much this book is the product of its time. This is to say that I think A Girl of the Limberlost is pretty preachy in ways I didn’t notice when I was 15. All of that stuff about the importance of self-reliance, and how you can drag yourself up by your bootstraps, and how adversity makes Elnora into a finer human than she might otherwise have been? (And, um, all of the moralizing about A Loose Man and a Light Woman and what the Almighty may or may not have in store for them!) I noticed that differently than I did when I read this as a child. And as an adult, oh man, some of these points made me a little angry.

(Ahem. One such moment occurs at the beginning of the novel, right after Wesley and Margaret try to gift Elnora new clothes for school. Elnora won’t accept their charity, and has just learned that she’ll be able to sell moths to the Bird Woman to pay for her books, tuition, and clothes. Anyway, Wesley and Margaret have this debate over how horribly Elnora’s mother treats her (and this is a thing I have approximately a million feelings on because she is just THE WORST to her) – and the conclusion they draw is, “Maybe Kate Comstock [Elnora’s mom] knows that she’s doing. Sure as you live, Elnora has grown bigger on knocks than she would have on love.” To which I say, NO. I disagree entirely. Just because Elnora turns out to be a fine human doesn’t mean her mother’s abuse and neglect are justified!)

But, anyway. Here are some things that I still loved about this novel upon re-reading it: Elnora! Elnora is wonderful. She’s far more reasonable and plucky than I was at 16. This isn’t to say she isn’t human – she wants to fit in; she has a quick tongue; she gets upset after a rough first day at school; and she gets horribly mad at her mother when Kate kills the ~*one moth*~ she needed to complete her collection. I don’t know, I find her very lovable, very good, and also very like a teenager at times. (I don’t totally understand her needs all the time, but okay, whatever.)

… I also think she can do WAY BETER than Phil Ammon. (I know he’s been spurned and he comes to lay his heart at her feet and also falls into a decline when she mysteriously vanishes, but erm, he’s kind of boring and also maybe a tool. And occasionally talks about himself in the third person. I don’t ship it! Do you?) But I’m picky like that, so feel your feels if your feels are Elnora/Phil 4eva.

Other things to love about this book: food porn and moths (but not the two together, let’s work to keep them separate in our minds). And hey, let’s get into the first part because it’s 11 p.m. and I am hungry for haws – ripe red haws! – even though I do not know what those are, because they sound like a delicious fall food. There are so many totally delectable descriptions of food in this book. Memory did not disappoint in the slightest. I might have forgotten Phil Ammon and forgotten some of the creepier aspects of this book, but when it comes to food, my memory was spot-on. “Custard with preserved cherries on top!” “Three large slices of the most fragrant spice cake imaginable!” (THREE SLICES, YOU GUYS.) “Preserved pear, clear as amber.”

And the after-school snacks she prepares for her first treat to the other girls: “She offered each girl an exquisite basket of bark, lined with red leaves, in one end of which nestled a juicy big red apple and in the other a spicy doughnut not nearly an hour from Margaret Sinton’s frying basket.” And then, you know, we get the “big balls of popped corn stuck together with maple sugar” or, my favorite, “ten enormous sugar cakes the tops of which had been liberally dotted with circles made from stick candy. The candy had melted in baking and made small transparent wells of waxy sweetness, and in the center of each cake was a fat turtle made from a raising with cloves for head and feet.”

Yes. Yes, I would like all of that now, please deliver it to my mouth directly.

My other favorite part of this book is the lovingly detailed descriptions of Nature (capital-N in this book). Flowers! Vegetables! Butterflies (whether or not they’re feasting on carrion)! The “trees of the forest rising north and west like a green wall!” The grosbeak – and I don’t even know what a grosbreak is! The violets that Phil wants to give to Edith – the “a thick blanket of violets nodding from stems a foot in length.” And of course, all the moths. I don’t care for moths overmuch, but it was impossible for me to read passages like this – “on the hand she held out to them clung a pair of delicate blue-green moths, with white bodies and touches of lavender and straw color” – and not feel like they might be beautiful.

I also love all of the passages where Elnora plays the violin, too – especially the one where she brings the Limberlost to life.

One thing that struck me, though, was that quite a lot of energy is spent detailing how awesome the natural world is, but there’s also a sense of its impermanence too – Wesley and Maggie can’t understand why Kate Comstock isn’t making like her neighbors and selling some timber, or setting it up so that oil can be pumped from her land. And Kate’s initial attitude – “nobody better touch my husband’s trees!!1!”- is one that’s really marked as backwards and not with the times, you know? So, to me it’s a strange thing – lots of rhapsodizing about nature alongside passages that also encourage destroying some of it for monetary gain. And it’s the same with Elnora’s moths – they’re beautiful, but she’s taking them out of the swamp in bushels to pay her way. (And there’s that weird passage where Billy is like, “The moths love being killed by you!”) I don’t know – there’s just a disconnect for me in the book between “wow, Nature is beauteous!” / “Make way for progress and sell your timber!”

Here are some other things that startled me on a re-read. First off, there are a few plot points that are left hanging and are maybe unnecessary to the narrative – the one that bothers me most is the storyline with Pete Corson, who, as you may remember is the creeper who lusts after Elnora and leaves her that horrible note about not going into the swamp too late at night. He plays a part later in helping Kate Comstock find a pair of Yellow Emperors but is totally absent from the book after that point. Which is weird, because the ominous presence of the Corson gang is sort of hanging over everything in the beginning, but then we never heard of them again. Conversely, other things seem resolved too easily – Kate Comstock’s transformation is one that really gets me. So, okay, she stops blaming Elnora for the untimely death of her father, but I can’t believe that there isn’t any fall-out or period of adjustment that needs to happen following, I don’t know, sixteen years of neglect. But this seems to be by and large the book’s philosophy – that, like, huge changes in character can happen in the space of an instant. It happens for Kate Comstock and it happens later for Edith.

I was also really horrified by the description of Kate’s physical transformation – her description of how she basically removes her old skin with a poultice was horrifying to me. Likewise, the entire episode where Kate encounters the woman her husband cheated with (who is, Kate initially suggests, dying from cancer as a punishment from God) – there’s just like sixteen years of resentment and fury and it all gets unleashed upon this poor woman who is dying. But that whole sequence? Auuuughhh.

Finally, in terms of the book’s structure, I feel like the first half of the book – Elnora’s struggles with school and her mother – is by far the most interesting. We get to meet Elnora, Wesley, Maggie, Billy, and Kate; learn about moths; and get a real sense of Elnora’s character. Reading it again, I was totally shocked that we skip from Elnora’s freshmen year to her senior year! WTF, book. (I feel fairly certain that Elnora ate food that I would have liked to have heard about, for one.) I suspect I wouldn’t be bothered by this if the second half of the book were not as lackluster as it is – I just feel like it loses steam with Phil Ammon and Edith and Hart and Freckles and co.

Okay, I have more feelings about this book forever and always, but I feel like I’ve been rambling on about this book for too long. So, moving on!

vine-divider-finalOctober Readalong

This month’s selection is Roald Dahl’s The Witches! All I remember about this book are mice and like … blue teeth.

TheWitchesTitle:The Witches
Author: Roald Dahl
Discussion Date: Friday, October 30
Hashtag: #tmgreadalong

This is not a fairy tale. This is about real witches.

Grandmamma loves to tell about witches. Real witches are the most dangerous of all living creatures on earth. There’s nothing they hate so much as children, and they work all kinds of terrifying spells to get rid of them. Her grandson listens closely to Grandmamma’s stories—but nothing can prepare him for the day he comes face-to-face with The Grand High Witch herself!

Right now, it’s available on Kindle for $7.99, but it should also be fairly easy to find used and/or at your local library!


ANYHOW. What were your feels about this book? Did I miss any notable food porn? Help a girl out and tell me what I missed in the comments.

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13 Responses to “Classic MG Discussion: A Girl of the Limberlost”

  1. Ruth

    Thank you so much for this great review. It’s far too long since I read this awesome book – time for a re-read. My mother was a reader all her life. She was born 3 years after Gene Stratton-Porter wrote “A Girl of the Limberlost” I’m pretty sure my Mom read this to me and my siblings when I was a child. I was very ADHD in childhood and youth so didn’t start reading much until an adult. When my children were young, because I knew about this book from my Mom, I read it to them. We LOVED it! I’m going to have to fork over quite a $$$ because I’m determined to buy myself a first edition volume of it.
    Elnora’s a girl after my own heart. I spend as much time as I possibly can in the wilderness or where I can at least look towards views of it. I’ve poured that passion into nature photography and Elnora often comes to mind when I’m on my wilderness wanderings; almost as she’s along with me on my nature walks.

  2. Brenda

    At certain points A Girl of Limberlost seemed a little preachy to me too, especially when she’s mentioning the Almighty and her prayers, but it wasn’t enough to turn me away from the story. I think it really did seem to portray the time period that it was written in. I so loved the beginning when Wesley and Margaret are struggling over buying her clothes and neither one seems to know what to do. Plus how they resolve to try and “convince” Elnora’s mom to let her keep them. So funny and cute. I was like yes, fight for her. And Elnora, how sweet is she? When she helps out Billy and his siblings, and how she is so determined to go to school. How she is so resourceful to figure out a way to pay for things despite her mother. But don’t get me started on her mother, she was just to much. I get her grief, but to take it out on Elnora, ugh. At least she changes by the end, but somehow it doesn’t seem completely believable. Or maybe it’s just that it seemed to quick. I don’t know. I did love all the food references too, makes you hungry for sure, and those pears clear as amber oh yum. I’m with you on the Pete Corson plot line though, why did he leave her the note? I didn’t get it. At first I was thinking maybe he was her dad and then I thought, oh no hope he isn’t going to stalk her throughout the story, and then I was like what they are hunting moth’s together? It seemed to go no where. I was also surprised when the story jumped ahead three years, I get why it was needed, but things were going along so well. I didn’t really need the whole Phillip story-line at that point. If it ended with her going off to college, I would have been ok with that too. Such a fun story. Thanks for another lovely read. Looking forward to The Witches in October, another first time read for me. Gonna go hide my head in shame. :)
    Brenda recently posted…Classic YA Read-along Girl of the Limberlost (Limberlost #2) by Gene Stratton-Porter

    • Layla

      Oooh, a first-time reader of The Witches! That’s seriously exciting tho. That’s another one that I haven’t read in so many years that I might as well be reading it for the first time! I’m looking forward to picking it up.

      Yeah, the preachiness for me is there – there’s a lot of praying to the Almighty – but also in that the narrative seems to imply that if you just work hard enough, you will succeed! and thrive! Like, there’s always a way out for Elnora and that way is … “well, just work harder!” (Also the sense of an Almighty who is watching and constantly doling out rewards and punishments, like cancer, apparently. That makes me unhappy!)

      I do love Elnora, too! She is super resourceful and far more forgiving than I would be in her situation, to be honest. (I mean, it would take more than 24 hours for me to work through years of mistreatment, and yet, the very next day, she’s able to say “Motherrrrrrrrr” in tones of supreme confidence or whatever.) Also, it’s upsetting to me that her mother’s transformation is never *about* Elnora, you know? It’s about Elnora’s father. And, like you say, it’s too quick.

      The Pete Corson thing! I don’t know. I wonder if it was just a device to keep Elnora from getting all her moths too quickly (since she can’t go into the swamp anymore). Pete seems to leave her a note warning her against him (super problematic, obvs, the warning seems to serve as a way of not taking responsibility for this actions – “don’t go in the swamp, or something bad will happen! implied: so if you go in the swamp alone, it’s your problem.”) Whatever! But that plot line never goes anywhere. He disappears entirely!

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed this one, or at least had some good thoughts about it. :)
      Layla recently posted…An Inheritance of Ashes

  3. Carina Olsen

    Gorgeous post Layla :D Yay for liking this one, despite not fully loving it. This just really isn’t my genre, lol. But it do seem interesting :D And so old o.O You are awesome for reading it. <3 Thank you for sharing sweetie :)
    Carina Olsen recently posted…In My Mailbox #204

    • Layla

      Oh, I looooved this book as a kid. It’s only reading this much later that I feel like some things are kind of screwed up. I don’t know if you’d like it – I think you probably wouldn’t! – so yeah, maybe steer clear of this one. :)
      Layla recently posted…An Inheritance of Ashes

    • Layla

      Oh, check it out. It’s very old-timey (and feels dated to me in many ways) but I looooooooved it in junior high school. I can still remember sitting in my seventh-grade classroom and reading it for the first time. Weirdly, one of the Carmelite nuns at my school had also read it and loved it – I remember talking with her a bit about it. Perhaps that’s not actually all that weird – I think this book in particular was really popular after its publication. It’s inspired at least two movie adaptations, though I haven’t seen either one.
      Layla recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: A Girl of the Limberlost

  4. Ashley C.

    I have always loved this book for many of the same reasons you did. I loved the way that Wesley and Margaret were always there for her in the big and little loving ways (the shopping excursion to set her up for school!), but never understood why they didn’t just take her away from her horrible mother. And I, too, loved all of the wonderful gifts that Elnora created for her group of friends. So creative and truly thoughtful, it has always been in the back of my mind for how I like to give gifts. I’ve never been big into Nature (with the capital N), but loved reading about the world of the Limberlost. This book may be completely of its time, but there was always so much of that time that I enjoyed reading about.

    • Layla

      Yeah, Wesley and Margaret seem really careful when it comes to overstepping boundaries with Kate (even though Kate doesn’t seem to feel that way and feels like the little affection they give Elnora is still too much). I still really love the sequence where they pick out clothes and shoes for her – I love detailed descriptions of clothing and how they plan to style Elnora’s hair, and oh, the lunchbox! It’s almost as good as food porn. (Probably this is why I like to read beauty / fashion blogs still.) I’m glad that Wesley and Margaret are there for Elnora, but I really wish they’d stepped in with Kate earlier (although I can totally see why they didn’t – she seems super unpredictable, and what if knowing about her husband’s infidelity would have made her treat Elnora worse?).

      I’m never going to be as good a gift-giver as Elnora. Remember the graduation presents she makes for them? I thought of that a lot when I was graduating high school.
      Layla recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: A Girl of the Limberlost