The choice for for Carrie’s book club for the month of June is A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. I had read it and Freckles by the same author when I was a child and wanted to read them both again: the book club choice provided a good opportunity.
Freckles first appears as an older teen-ager of Irish descent seeking a job at a logging camp in Indiana’s Limberlost forest. He had grown up in an orphanage where he had been left as a baby newly missing one hand. He was never given any other name. The boss, McLean, takes a liking to him and gives him a chance as his guard to walk the perimeter of his property twice a day and check the lines, making sure no one has trespassed. A former disgruntled employee had marked some trees to sell to a rival logging company, so theft was a real danger, as were rattlesnakes and other creatures native to the forest and the swamp.
Various noises and movements in the forest scare him at first, but soon he becomes used to them and then enthralled with the creatures and plants there. An urge to learn more about them leads to a purchase of nature books from the city.
After Freckles tells one of the men about the antics of one of the birds, the man suggests sending for a lady only known as the Bird Woman who travels around to photograph various birds. When she comes, she brings a teen-age girl as a helper. When Freckles first sees her, he dubs her the Swamp Angel, and that’s the only name we know her by. My main memory of reading the book the first time was the scene where he first meets her, and I couldn’t remember if she was a person or an image or what: it all seemed very ethereal in my memory. But she is very much a real girl.
The rest of the book details the various adventures and troubles they encounter and seems mainly to show Freckles’ character. It’s very much an old-fashioned book with the two main characters idealized to the point of almost no wrong, but they are both admirable: noble, loyal, kind, trustworthy, hard-working, going above and beyond the call of duty. There are some unrealistic places, such as the Swamp Angel giving suggestions to the logging camp men about how to best set up their tents and to the cook about how to prepare his meals, and they all take it appreciatively because she’s so wholesome and beautiful…
Though the book is not primarily a romance, the two do fall in love, but it is a problem because the Angel is from a rich family with a long and noteworthy bloodline, and Freckles’ heritage is unknown. It’s strange, but evidently the thinking of the time must have been that one’s character is determined by one’s bloodline: such a view doesn’t leave much room for salvation or a bettering of oneself. Freckles thinks he is unworthy of the Angel because of the people his must have been, but she feels his exemplary character must have come from a noble people. It’s sad that Freckles’ character and what he has made of himself doesn’t speak for itself.
Knowing Porter was a naturalist, I am not sure if her reason for writing the book was just to display a noble character in various circumstances or to place a story in her beloved Limberlost. I had a feeling the Bird Woman was based on herself, and there is much detail about the flora and fauna of the area.
The book also caused me to think about the differences between a naturalist, a conservationist, and what we would know today as an environmentalist. At least in this book Porter seems to love nature and want it preserved as much as possible and not wasted, but she also seems to have no problem with cutting down trees to make furniture or killing an otter expressly to make a muff as a gift for a lady. Nature is not intended for worship, it can be used, but it needs to be used carefully and wisely and not wasted or ravaged.
I was surprised at the number of occurrences of variations of the word “damn” in the book.
Though I usually enjoy reading actual ink and paper books more than listening to them, I think I might have grown a little tired of this one as a book. It worked well as an audiobook I could listen to while driving, etc. The production value was not as good as others I have heard: there was a little background noise, and it seemed as if it were read by a teacher or librarian, whereas with other audiobook narrators I had the sense the story was being told rather than read. Although the narrator didn’t employ different inflections or voices with different characters, I did enjoy the musicality of Freckles way of talking, tinged with an Irish lilt but not quite a brogue.
I’m glad I revisited this story. I don’t know that I would do so again any time soon, but it was neat to flesh out the memories of this book from my childhood.
(Updated to add: I just noticed that at the moment this is free for the Kindle. I don’t know how long it will be.)
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)