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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.


  1. My Nana remembered "Girl of the Limberlost" fondly from HER childhood. Perhaps it is as simple as the book was available and had a character a young girl could identify with. When we are young all girls dream of happy endings and being special.

  2. Yeah - and we all hate our mothers and think they hate us. - Jayne