Cauli Le Chat

Cauli Le Chat
Cauli Le Chat, MPL Roving Reporter

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blossoming Romance in a Naturalist's Paradise

Novelist and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) was a Hoosier native.  She was born in Wabash County, Indiana, but for 25 years she lived near Limberlost Swamp near Geneva, Indiana.  Here's a coincidence: the author's birth name was Geneva Grace Stratton, and she lived in Geneva. Coincidence?  This will get the conspiracy theorists furrowing their brows.

Although Stratton-Porter became famous as a fiction writer, she also wrote many non-fiction naturalist books, was a proficient photographer, and even became a movie producer.  For the early 20th century, that was quite a series of accomplishments, especially considering the social obstacles women faced during that time that effectively barred many from independent business enterprises.

Many critics rank A Girl of the Limberlost, first published in 1909, as Stratton-Porter's masterpiece.  It is a romance novel as well as a coming-of-age tale.  Its age should not detract from its contemporary value.  What makes this novel relevant to readers a century after its initial publication is its theme of struggling against poverty (due to a miserly mother in this book) to achieve personal success, improve self-esteem, and garner an improved standard of living, coupled with the romantic triangle between the main character, Elnora Comstock, the chief heart-throb, Philip Ammon, and his fiancée, Edith Carr, the primary antagonist to this blossoming love between poor girl and rich fellow.  Include a wicked widowed mother for good measure, and you have all the makings of a modern Cinderella story.

The poverty aspect of the story is somewhat complex.  The Comstocks live like poor folks, not because they lack property, but because they are not managing it effectively.  The wilderness that the author clearly loved could be maintained with minimal encroachment, and this development (selling some timber or cultivating arable land) could easily provide Elnora's educational needs and the mother and daughter's daily comforts. Katharine Comstock (the mother) is embroiled in such bitterness and martyrdom (her widowhood, you know) that she doesn't really care how harshly she and her daughter exist.  Such an attitude, Stratton-Porter makes plain, is just mean-spirited, not to mention myopic.  Fortunately, the mother and daughter reconcile at the novel's midway point, when Katharine learns a shocking truth.  (There's a "hook" if ever there were one.)

If one were searching for an intended audience, I'd venture that the book best fits Young Adults (ages 13-18) and 'Tweens (ages 10-14), which, obviously, are somewhat overlapping classifications.  Adults should certainly enjoy the book, too.  You will be captivated by the wondrous writing, "whereins" notwithstanding.  Stratton-Porter was in peak writing form with this work.

I've noticed that many blogs that review Stratton-Porter's works invariably mention their wholesomeness.  (Indeed, the back cover of a Grosset & Dunlap edition uses the term.)  A Girl of the Limberlost is certainly no exception.  The budding romance between Elnora and Philip, as well as Elnora's trials and tribulations with her mother, finances, and schoolmates, are powerfully delivered without recourse to vulgarity or lewdness.  For some readers, this is highly valued, and it might help to stoke their interest in reading the novel.  For others, it might make the reading seem "dated" or "quaint," but that assessment would be unfair to the author's vision and expressiveness.  Just because of book is over a century old is no reason not to read it.  (I'll try a quadruple-negative sentence construction if it will earn me a gold Olympic grammatical medal.  It's not for nothing that I'm known for not neverthelessing.  Okay, that was sort of a flub.)

Naturally, you may find A Girl of the Limberlost in our Evergreen Indiana online catalog.  In fact, my Library's Indiana Roving Reporter Room has a 1909 copy published by Grosset & Dunlap.  Are there copies at other Evergreen libraries?  Duh.  The Adams Public Library System (APLS) has a branch in Geneva, after all, so you know they must have a bajillion copies.

I'm a Back-to-Nature Feline,

Cauli Le Chat
MPL Roving Reporter
Readers' Advisory News Beat

P.S.  There have been at least four movie adaptations of the novel A Girl of the Limberlost.  Want to watch a four-minute sampler?  Easily managed.  Everything is available on YouTube.  The movie soundtrack should lay off the sauce, I'd wager.

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