I wasn’t very far into Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1909 novel A Girl of the Limberlost when I started to have a sinking feeling that this might be the first book in my and Jenny’s book swap that wasn’t going to be a resounding success. There were elements of the story that didn’t seem to have aged well and there were elements that I seemed to have aged beyond, as an adult encountering the story for the first time. But I was intrigued by the complex and emotionally fraught relationship between the novel’s young heroine, Elnora Comstock, and her emotionally distant and neglectful mother. Eventually, the problems I had with the book fell away, and I came to enjoy it quite a lot.
Elnora lives on the edge of the Limberlost Swamp, and her greatest desire is to attend high school. Her mother allows her to go but does nothing to help her; she even fails to tell her that she will need money for books and tuition. When Elnora turns up on the first day in her old-fashioned country clothes and without needed supplies, she is ashamed and nearly decides never to return. Fortunately, her kind-hearted neighbors, Wesley and Margaret Sinton decide to make sure she gets what she needs, if not from her mother then from them. Elnora is too proud to take what she considers charity, but she learns that by collecting and selling moths and other treasures of the swamp she can earn enough money to pay the Sintons back, and she accepts a few items, including a wonderful lunch tote, as early Christmas gifts.
Elnora’s independence was the source of one of my difficulties with these early chapters. At times, I felt that the book was sending the message that everyone can and must earn his or her own way in life. Although I can see the value in encouraging children to be industrious and to work hard, Elnora’s refusals of help often seemed like a sign of prideful stubbornness, rather than admirable self-reliance. And when she said things like, “People have no right to wear things they can’t afford, have they?” it was hard for me to accept her as the ideal of young womanhood the narrative seems to suggest that she is. But as the book goes on, Elnora softens somewhat, and the novel feels less like an object lesson in the beauty of self-reliance and more like a study in being true to yourself in the midst of community.
The other complicating factor in these early chapters is the treatment of Elnora’s mother’s refusal to allow her land to be drilled for oil. The Sintons see this as an example of her living in the past, in the days before her husband died in the swamp. Not to drill is tantamount to refusing to provide for her daughter. As unsettling as this was to read, I could see past it because the novel was written in 1909. I don’t know much about the oil industry in those days, but I think there’s a big difference between a private landowner putting in a few wells and an oil company covering the whole countryside with them. Also, later developments, while not exactly vindicating Mrs. Comstock, show that her choice may not have been as foolhardy as her neighbors thought.
One of the things that ultimately made this novel so enjoyable is that it recognizes how complex and multifaceted human relationships are. The first and best example of this is in the relationship between Elnora and her mother. Mrs. Comstock resents Elnora and has since her birth. Often, when Mrs. Comstock makes a move toward showing affection, she takes it back or twists it into something ugly. But as monstrous as Mrs. Comstock’s actions are, she doesn’t seem like a monster. She’s a woman in pain, and the question is, what will snap her out of it?
That’s the question that lurks behind many of the relationships in the book. Sometimes the question is answered quickly, as when Margaret Sinton reacts furiously to Wesley’s bringing home a newly orphaned little boy named Billy who seems made of pure wickedness. And later in the book, a similar question is behind Elnora’s relationship with a fellow moth enthusiast, Phillip Ammon. Elnora and Phillip develop an instant rapport, but he’s engaged to the socialite Edith Carr. Here, we don’t know precisely who needs to snap out of what, but we know that not everyone will get what they want. So whose heart will be broken?
The more of this book I read, the more pleasure I took from it. It’s a hopeful book in which even the hardest hearts are softened, but it earns its hopefulness by putting the characters through some serious, seemingly insurmountable difficulties. As I reader, I’m glad I persevered through my own early struggle with the book so that my own heart could be softened toward it.