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!
This month’s selection is Roald Dahl’s The Witches! All I remember about this book are mice and like … blue teeth.
Author: Roald Dahl
Discussion Date: Friday, October 30
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.