I can’t remember where I first heard about A Girl of the Limberlost; all I know is that I had seen it mentioned frequently as a classic of American children’s literature, and I was intrigued by its setting in rural Indiana and the enthusiasm of people’s comments about it. I found a cheap copy on ebay and was initially put off when I looked inside at the contents; it seemed a rather saccharine Edwardian children’s book, and I didn’t feel particularly moved to read it. However, last week I was stuck for something to read and so I picked this up. Surrounded by the hubbub of a typical subway journey, contrary to my expectations, I found myself transported to a different world as soon as I began reading. Stratton-Porter’s charming description of the Limberlost, a great swathe of swampland in Indiana populated by a wonderful array of beautiful flora and fauna and a lovely teenage girl called Elnora, captured my imagination from the very first page.
Elnora Comstock lives in a house on the edge of the Limberlost with her difficult, unaffectionate and bitter mother, who never recovered from her husband’s death and blames Elnora for it, as he drowned in the swamp while she was giving birth to her. Paralysed by her grief, Kate Comstock has refused to develop her husband’s rich land since he died and so she and her daughter live in needless shabby poverty. This is much to the consternation of the Comstock’s neighbours, the kind and generous Uncle Wesley and Margaret, who adore Elnora and treat her as their own daughter. They understand Kate’s grief and are patient with her, but at the beginning of the novel, things come to a head when Elnora decides that she wants to go school and Kate refuses to give her the money to pay the fees and buy her books. After a humiliating first day, when the beautiful, proud and intelligent Elnora is mocked for her country clothes and disheartened by the unexpected expense of the education she so desires, the tables are turned on Kate. Uncle Wesley and Margaret set out to buy Elnora the wardrobe she needs to fit in at school, and Elnora realises that she can make money out of her treasured hobby of collecting moths by selling her rare samples to The Bird Woman in town. Independently able to support herself and excelling in school, Elnora can hope for a future at last, free of her mother’s cold indifference.
Elnora loves school, her new friends, playing the violin, collecting moths and just being in nature. She delights in the natural world, is kind, generous, loving and excels in all that she does, but the only thing that would truly make her happy is having the love of her mother; something Kate is unable to give. However, Kate’s cruel response to Elnora’s graduation makes Margaret and Wesley realise enough is enough and they finally deliver a secret about Kate’s husband that they have kept for many years, which will change the way she feels about her daughter. Over the long summer that follows Elnora’s graduation, Kate and Elnora discover one other’s true characters for the first time and build a relationship based on affection, consideration and love rather than hatred and bitterness. A visitor will also arrive at the Limberlost who will awaken Elnora’s burgeoning heart during this hot summer of discovery; but, as she soon learns, the course of true love never did run smooth…
A Girl of the Limberlost is really a story of two halves; the story of Elnora’s school days and her mother’s character transformation, and then the story of the boy she falls in love with and the difficulties they have in the course of their romance. It is a charming and beautiful story, based in the most interesting and romantic natural setting I have come across in literature since The Secret Garden. Essentially it is a rustic, very Edwardian fairytale; Elnora is a swamp-dwelling Cinderella and Kate is the wicked Stepmother; Wesley and Margaret are the fairy godmothers and Philip, Elnora’s love interest, the Prince Charming. They all develop their characters through learning important lessons and growing and changing as a result; the natural world teaches them plenty about the goodness of God and the preciousness of life; and the gentle, rural world of the Limberlost, gradually being infiltrated by modern technological advances, is a metaphor for how change is inevitable in life and that we have to adapt ourselves to cope with it. The presence of moths throughout the novel is also important; the notion of the chrysalis being an ugly shell for a beautiful moth or butterfly within is especially significant for Kate Comstock, though it is relevant for several other characters too. As the story progresses, old ugly habits and attitudes are shed to reveal inner goodness and beauty, and no one is shown to be irredeemable, no matter how sturdy the chrysalis surrounding them has been.
Whimsical, lovely and utterly charming, Edwardian children’s literature doesn’t get much better than this. Yes, it’s a little didactic, yes it’s religious, and yes it’s a little sentimental, but the messages it drives home about the importance of being brave and good and generous and loving and respectful of the natural world are timeless, inspiring and beautifully drawn. Elnora is a wonderful character; determined, headstrong, and unfailingly generous, she is an example of how it is possible to transcend the circumstances of your upbringing. I loved all of the characters, the Limberlost itself included, and I have felt very bereft at leaving its world of waving grasses, flower scented air and fluttering butterflies behind. This is the sort of book that once read, you’ll treasure forever. Get hold of a copy and try it for yourself; I promise you won’t regret it.