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Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Grandmother of the Limberlost

'A Girl of the Limberlost' by Gene Stratton-Porter was first published in 1909. My Scottish-Canadian grandmother, Grace, was awarded a copy at her one-room schoolhouse sometime in the following decade, a copy inscribed to her personally. It was not the only book awarded to her during her schooldays for 'First in Class', but this one, which she treasured and re-read throughout her life. was found in her personal trunk after she died at the age of 92. What could be a more ideal book for entering the world of my grandmother's reading?

Thanks to my local library, I've now finished reading a hardcover copy of this novel in 2011, 102 years after its publication. (Aside: I wonder if e-books published today will still be readable, not by humans, but by the technology available in 2111)

'Limberlost' is a sequel to 'Freckles', about which I knew nothing beyond the title. Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia inform me that the title character is an orphan who finds employment and his life's passion in the flora and fauna of the Limberlost Swamp.
Freckles is a grown man and moved away by the time 'A Girl of the Limberlost' opens, but has left his lore and his moth cages in the swamp for the use of Limberlost's heroine, Elnora.

The story of 'Limberlost' opens with Elnora starting high school at the town nearest her farm. She has largely brought herself up to this point while her widowed, embittered mother begrudged every mouthful of food and item of clothing. Her patience and sweetness have endeared her to the neighbours, and will do the same to everyone she goes on to meet in this new, wider world.

Scrambling over and around obstacles thrown up by her mother and an uncaring world, she turns her hard-won knowledge of the swamp's flora and fauna into enough money to pay her tuition and clothing at high school, and dreams of attending college. She has inherited from her dead father a keen sense of music and trains herself into a accomplished violinist. Eventually, beloved by everyone including her much-softened mother, she finds a True Love of her own and (after a few more obstacles thrown up by another mean-spirited woman) lives happily ever after.

Although she seems a bit too perfectly adorable and virtuous for my modern sensibilities, Elnora clearly made a strong impression on my grandmother. But what exactly this novel tells about my grandmother is not clear. Grace gave her only daughter the middle name of Eleanor, not Elnora, likely because - especially in the wake of anti-European sentiment following the first world war - her conservative farming family wasn't accepting of any name that sounded 'foreign'  (long story short: immigrants were exempted from The Conscription Act that lost many Canadian families their sons in the final year of WW1). Did Grace identify with Elnora's fascination with moths and butterflies? Her familiarity with daily farm chores that also took up much of young Grace's day? Her struggle to get dresses similar to those of the other girls at school, or to overcome unreasonable parental demands in order to carve out her own life and identity? A family legacy of bitter women visiting tribulations on their daughters? I don't know enough about Grace's early life to hazard a guess.

Maybe, on later readings, Grace identified more with Elnora's mother. Mrs. Comstock was deeply disappointed to learn the true character of the man she had married. On my few childhood visits to my grandparents' farm, I don't remember open hostility between them (although my mother assures me it was a constant feature of her childhood) but I also don't remember them speaking to each other beyond the most necessary words. Certainly there was no laughter or affection between them or from them to their children. In that sense, Grace had recreated the dynamic between Mrs. Comstock and Elnora. I wonder if she regretted that bitter relationship even while she felt helpless to change it. Maybe, in her last re-reading of 'Limberlost', she was clinging to the hope that, like Mrs. Comstock, she too would live to experience a reconciliation and renewal of mother-daughter affection.

Maybe I'm drawing too many inferences from too little evidence.

'Limberlost' is in essence a moral tale where behaving well is eventually rewarded, where admitting (if only to yourself) your faults and making such amends as you can is a good thing, where taking the high road instead of stooping to malicious or self-serving behaviors makes you a better person. I can't tell if Grace tried to carry those moral lessons forward in her adult life. If so, her efforts were not rewarded by a True Love and a happily-ever-after, unless you count the simple enjoyment of life she found after her husband died and she moved into a small house in town for her final decades. 'A Girl of the Limberlost' was one of the very few non-household possessions she took with her from the farm.

In the interests of further research, I read 'The Magic Garden' written by the same author near the end of her career and posthumously published. In this one, the heroine is again a lonely isolated girl who yearns for love. Her mother is as cold, rejecting, and neglectful as Elnora's mother, although as rich, vain, and attention seeking as the eventually-humbled Edith in 'Limberlost'. Our girl's father is not dead and eventually, through her (misguided) bravery comes to know and love his little girl. She makes every effort to grow up to be a worthy woman (exactly how is rather glossed over) and she, like Elnora, finds True Love and lives happily ever after. Was the author working out her own issues with all these mean-spirited women who neglected or emotionally abused their daughters? Or merely revisiting a literary trope proven to engage female readers and sell books?

One moral of this much shorter tale is that divorce can be very hard on the children involved. That particular marital resolution was likely not much seen in the author's social circle prior to the 1920's, and even less so in a tiny farming community in mid-northern Saskatchewan. I suspect my grandmother, if she ever did read this book - published after she was already a wife and mother isolated on a farm with an uncaring husband - might have thought longingly of those possibilities.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reading my Grandmother - the Fairy Glen Library

When you start asking questions about your family history, all kinds of fascinating facts come forward. Such as…

There was a library in the tiny hamlet of Fairy Glen, though not when my grandmother was a girl. She had left home before it was established in my great-grandmother’s living room, around 1928. One of my uncles described it to me as shelves against the end wall, maybe 12 feet long by 8 feet high, crammed with fiction – mostly westerns – and non-fiction. The library even had a name: Aurora Borealis. 

(My library looks pretty much the same... more board feet of shelving... but all the books in it belong to us, and we just call it the 'living room')

The sign-out record at Aurora Borealis was a ledger with columns labeled by hand:  title/date/person taking/date returned. In a community of less than 200 people, that was sufficient. The librarian - even when she was not your own grandmother - knew not only you, but your mother, father, siblings, and extended family. She not only knew your phone number (if you had one) and your class at the only school, but she would likely see you at least once a week in company with your parents, teachers, friends, and other people who would frown alarmingly (if they did nothing worse) to find you had abused the privilege of using the library. 

My uncle made a few phone calls and traced the movements of the library: beginning at his grandmother's house around the time the railroad and grain elevators came to Fairy Glen, it moved to Mrs. Ronning, who also had the post office. After World War 2, Mrs. Ronning's boys came home to a dearth of local jobs and she moved away with them, sending the post office to a neighbour, Red Glover, and the library to the schoolhouse, which had been expanded well beyond its one room by then due to an influx of families forced off their farms during the Great Depression. Sad to say, when the Fairy Glen school was amalgamated into the Melfort school unit, the building and contents were essentially abandoned. After some incidents of vandalism, a former teacher rescued a few boxes of books, the last remnants of a pioneer initiative that encouraged reading and the acquisition of knowledge in that isolated farming community for several decades.

My first concrete link to my Scottish-Canadian grandmother’s reading habits has also turned up: my mother remembers that her mother was awarded a book while she attended that original one-room schoolhouse. She read it many times and kept it in her private trunk all her long, long life. The book was Gene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.

This book has been in print since 1909, and my local library (Alexander Calhoun Branch, Calgary Public Library) sent me over a copy within two days of my requesting it. I LOVE my local library!

My uncle remembers my grandmother had 4-5 girls books inscribed with ‘for First in Class’, and suggested I look for ‘Girls of the True Blue’. This book was one of around 300 written or co-written by L.T. Meade in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (she died in 1914). 

Sadly, this particular title is not available either at my library or on Project Gutenberg. Doubly sad because, as an Irish-born author, L.T. Meade could well have been on my English grandmother’s childhood reading list as well.Gutenberg has numerous titles available, though, so until I get more specific information, I can taste-test the books and get the flavour of both my grandmothers' girlhood reading options.

This weekend, though, I will open 'A Girl of the Limberlost' and experience for the first time a book that I know was a vital part of my Fairy Glen grandmother’s reading life. One small connection is made.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reading My Grandmothers - Library history

A smidge of library history for you:

The first library at Melfort, Saskatchewan to which my Scottish-Canadian grandmother would have had access was opened in 1928, by which time she was 24 years old, married, with two babies. Even if she hadn't had babies and farm work to contend with, Melfort was 26 km from Fairy Glen (where her school was), and even further from her farm.

Current Melfort librarian Penny Markland wrote me about that first library:

Rules about the use of the library were rather more stringent than they are today.  Members were to have no more than 1 book at a time for no longer than 2 weeks.  Those with overdue books were strictly dealt with, being expelled from library membership after the 3rd offense!   In 1932 the librarian’s salary was $120.00 per year.  $51.84 was spent on books that year.   I don’t think children were necessarily allowed in the library back then, although I’m not totally sure.
Isn't that last bit fascinating - and scary - when we consider how many children nowadays learn to love books and become lifetime readers because of free storytimes at the local library?

Not that the library looked like a particularly child-friendly place anyway. It was on the second floor of the post office, though, so at least it was centrally located for anyone who did get into town once a week from the surrounding countryside and villages.

This is the new library:

It has all the services we take for granted nowadays: not only books and magazines but computers with Internet access, storytimes, kids' crafts, book clubs, classes for all ages, general interest programs and specialty guest speakers.

The one thing that hasn't changed, I bet, is that the librarians still do their darnedest to encourage children to explore the boundless worlds between the covers of books.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading My Grandmothers

Part One:

I don't actually know what my grandmothers read when they were girls, or adults. If I saw either of them more than a handful of times in my life, I don't remember. We were, and are, a peripatetic family with scant overlaps between geography and generation. To help me understand the influences that shaped my grandmothers, I want to read books that they might have read, see words and learn stories that might have helped shape them as my childhood reading shaped me.. But figuring out what those books are could be difficult.

Although I've sought out some 'early' books for children, such as E. Nesbit and Lucy Maude Montgomery, I'm not at all sure I've covered anything either of my grandmothers would have read. My godmother, the youngest daughter of my English grandmother, sent me my first copies of Little Women, Five Little Peppers, and Heidi, though, so maybe I have, without realizing it, joined a century-long chain of women related by both blood and books. But how would I know?

What books did they learn first to read? To what books did they turn for escape? What information do I have as a starting point?

One grandmother died when I was a child, not quite before I learned to read but long before I began to wonder what other people were reading. She was born in 1892 in England; in middle age, after World War 2, she immigrated to Canada, living mainly in small towns around the Prairies and eventually dying in northern Alberta. When I was around ten years old, she came to visit for several weeks; I felt I knew her after that but she died not many months later. It was impractical to take me along to her funeral, half a country away. Any books among her deathbed possessions were dispersed.

My other grandmother, born in 1904, lived well into my adulthood but I hardly knew her. Most of her life was spent in the same farmhouse, only a few miles from the land on which her father settled a farm. As a farm wife looking after a large family, garden and livestock, she likely had little time for reading. During our rare visits I never saw her with a book in her hands. The only ones I ever found in her house were mainstream novels from the 1950's, left behind from my mother's adolescence. Not that reading Pearl S. Buck wasn't a gateway to a wider world, but it did not leave any connections to that grandmother.

My grandmothers' childhood reading was unlikely to have covered all the same books, or maybe any at all, due to geography and patterns of human settlement.

My English grandmother attended a school in Hammersmith, which by then was functionally part of the city of London, England. Her immediate environs had been continuously settled for hundreds of years and contained any number of well-staffed schools for both boys and girls, many purpose-built of stone and brick construction, as well as lending libraries, bookstores, and a substantially literate population.

My Scottish-Canadian grandmother went to a new-built one-room schoolhouse, isolated on the prairies near Melfort, Saskatchewan. Melfort at the time had a population of around five hundred people, including a fair number of older settlers whose literacy was limited to the signing of their name. The school would have had maybe twenty students. Her first teacher was a Mr. John Houston. Although I cannot say with any certainty that he never expanded his pupils' reading opportunities beyond the provided textbooks, it is unlikely he was well versed in the current state of literature for girls.

 This question needs more exploration. When I have some likely titles in hand, or possibly just some concrete information from the surviving children of those deceased grandmothers, I'll post on this subject again.