A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

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.

43 comments

  1. Have you heard of “Freckles”, also by Gene Stratton Porter? It is in some sense a prequel to “A Girl of the Limberlost”, set in the same swamp. I remember my mother reading it out loud to us growing up.

    1. Yes, and I was thinking throughout the whole book that I probably was supposed to have read that first, as the frequent mentions of Freckles left me rather confused!

  2. I found this book in the neglected library of a neighbor of a friend, when I was about thirteen. None of the books had been read in so long, and everything smelled musty, and the neighbor seemed on the verge of throwing all the books out…so I…well. The truth is, I STOLE IT. Yes, I was the Book Thief, I admit it. But that’s how much I loved it.

    Reading it now, I glory in the melodrama, but I also still love it completely without irony. I have been told that Stratton-Porter’s environmentalism, which seems startlingly modern against the old-timey backdrop of the plot, was ground-breaking for her time. I’m so glad you got to read this before you left our shores! It is a quintessentially American novel.

    1. Oh, casual book theivery is never a crime, Mumsy! Books need to be rescued from indifferent owners, by hook or by crook! Good for you!

      The melodrama is spectacular, isn’t it?! But it’s so period appropriate, and I loved it nonetheless. I didn’t realise that about her environmentalism – it makes sense to me in the context of Elnora’s eventual occupation, though. Learning to respect nature and the world around is is something that no longer seems to have much of a place in our public education systems and I think that is a great shame. Gene Stratton-Porter’s attitude is spot on.

  3. I have been hearing about this for ages, but had not looked up anything about the plot or whether it was actually a good read. Since I trust your judgement, I will now see if I can get a copy or, as Suesis reports above, get an e-copy…

    Lovely report. Thanks!
    liz in texas

  4. I have this on Kindle. I love the setting and the descriptions of the every day life. I love old books that simply tell you how people lived. Getting a new dress was such a big event. A new lunch box was amazing! I just love that. And I loved Elnora. She wanted to go to school and come hell or high water, she was going to school!

    1. I know, isn’t it wonderful to be able to have a glimpse of the simplicity of how life used to be? Elnora appreciates every little thing, and I wish I could be so grateful for such small mercies. Modern life has ruined me! It’s the same with the Little House books – it takes so little to bring happiness to people, because they are used to doing without and making the best of things. If only that attitude was still in existence today.

  5. I love this book. It’s one of my favorites. Stratton-Porter has a lot of good titles — Freckles, mentioned above, is great, and so are The Harvester, The Keeper of the Bees, and Michael O’Halloran. Very satisfying in this same way, and as Mumsy mentioned above, purely American in the same way that L.M. Montgomery’s books are purely Canadian. Delicious!

    1. Thanks for those recommendations, Jenny! I have seen a few of those titles on ebay but I wasn’t sure if they’d be any good. I’ll try and track a few more down at some point!

  6. The weirdest Gene Stratton-Porter book is Her Father’s Daughter. Never did a book have so much good and so much bad in it. It’s a breathtaking a portrait of an early Los Angeles – a time when the heroine could climb around the local mounains studying herbs – but it also reflects the racism of the day, hostility and misunderstanding toward the Japanese. Shocking in that respect – but oh, what a glimpse of 1920 California.

    1. Hi Diana, thanks for that – I read a review of it online that said much the same and that it was very racist. I think I’ll try some of her less controversial ones first perhaps!

    2. It is horribly, virulently, blatantly, racist, and part of what makes it so disturbing to the modern reader is that the heroine’s racism is presented as one of her admirable traits.

      I read both “Freckles” and “Girl of the Limberlost” when I was 11 or 12, and there is a bit of classism/racism in them, but only a hint… nothing more than the attitudes found in many writers of the time. Then again, there weren’t any Asians in the areas she wrote about, so there wasn’t much opportunity for her real attitudes to come through. I found “Her Father’s Daughter” when I was about 15, and was so shocked and repelled by what I read that it put me off of Stratton-Porter and her books for years.

      As an adult, I have re-read and enjoyed her other books, but now see hints even in them of her attitude as to the superiority of certain ethnic/cultural groups.

      It still amazes me that nearly every article, biography, review, etc of her books simply ignores this aspect of her personality and writing.

  7. I have never read this book, but the title and even the cover look familiar. I wonder if it is one I passed over in the library many times. I won’t make that mistake again thanks to your intriguing review.

  8. There is a book vendor in one of the antique malls I frequent. The vendor’s books are in a cubby hole. It looks like a closet. Every time I go there, there is a copy, the same copy, of “A Girl of the Limberlost”. I pick it up and put it back. It’s an old, hard bound copy in good shape, just lovingly read and now I must go there and make it mine. I’ve never read it, Rachel, and, after your review, I don’t know why I haven’t, I just know that I must.

    1. That book is meant to be yours, Penny! It’s been calling out your name for a long time! I hope it’s still there when you go back for it – I just know this would be the perfect book for you!

  9. One of my very favourite childhood books, recommended by my mother, and I in turn recommended it to my daughter for whom it is now one of her favourite childhood books. I loved Elnora’s lunchbox. Wanted one of my own. I read Freckles too and enjoyed it but Girl is the one I remember most.

    1. How lovely to see it handed down through the generations as a favourite! I hope to be able to do the same. That lunchbox is something else, isn’t it? If only I had such extravagant lunches to look forward to!!

      1. It is lovely … and I think you captured its timelessness nicely. The copy I read looked a bit like yours … but my daughter’s copy is a paperback I bought when we lived in the US. I was so excited to see it still available because it is probably lesser known here downunder.

  10. Once again, a wonderful recommendation by you of a book I was not aware of. I was just talking with my daughters about “The Secret Garden” and how much that meant to them when they were growing up. I saw a wonderful play on Broadway, “War Horse” that is supposed to be based on an English children’s book. I am always inspired by books for children with a good message that sticks with them for life.

    1. Thank you! I am going to see War Horse tomorrow on Broadway – how funny that you should mention it! Children’s literature is some of the most profoundly important that we will ever read and I think it’s sad that it is so often dismissed and not included in the literary canon. The Secret Garden was a big influence on me as a child too, and A Girl of the Limberlost is definitely in the same category. I hope you can find a copy soon – you can share it with your grandchildren when they come along!

      1. I think War Horse has been adapted into an upcoming film by Steven Spielberg — it’s getting a lot of buzz as a possible Oscar contender.

      2. yes it has, I saw the trailer a few weeks ago, and it looks very good. I was anxious to see the play before the film and I’ve been lucky to get a ticket – I’m going on Wednesday and I can’t wait!

  11. I’m so glad you loved Girl of the Limberlost, that was one of my favourite books when I was a child, and is still re-read from time to time.

  12. I’ll be looking out for this one – somewhere, somehow. I’m not a user of e-bay but now perhaps it’s time to start. Amazon have this title in paperbacks but they’re quite expensive (for me).

    I so agree about children’s literature, how it can mark you and your attitudes for life. I was a great fan of Alison Uttley’s books. Not so much Grey Rabbit but definitely that glorious character Sam Pig. What I treasure was her deep love of the countryside which I picked up on from age 5 onward. Dad used to take us for picnics into what was then rural Kent (ha! rural no longer), only a short drive from New Eltham. I loved every flower, bird, grass. All that because of reading!

    You really do write the most enticing heartfelt reviews, Rachel!

    1. Get on ebay, Chrissy – you’ll find very cheap copies on there! If you’re having trouble let me know and I’ll get you one and send it on.

      Children’s books have such a profound impact on people, I find. Much more than any other books we read. I used to love the Grey Rabbit books! Oh how lovely – yes, not much of rural Kent is left these days! But books that celebrate nature are so important for children growing up in the cities and I am glad you found something to inspire you to get into the countryside from such a young age!

      Oh Chrissy! Thank you very much!

  13. I read this a couple of years ago when I first started blogging, and sadly, I was very disappointed. I thought it started out really well but then kind of spiraled down into unbelievable melodrama. I was also very confused about Freckles and that whole story thread. Maybe I would have liked it more if I’d read it as a teenager.

    However, I did recently reread Anne of Green Gables and I still loved it. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.

    1. Oh no, Karen! It is very over the top in places but I suppose I don’t really mind that in period novels so much. The Freckles thread WAS confusing though, I agree – it would have been helpful to have an introductory page explaining who Freckles was for those of us who haven’t read it first.

      Oh Anne of Green Gables! I read that last year and fell in love. I’ve read three of the sequels and remained enchanted…wonderful books..

  14. How lovely you have reviewed this book. It was my late mother’s favourite childhood book and she told me that one day in class (this would’ve been the 1920s) she was reading it under her desk during a lesson and her teacher asked her what she was reading, and when she saw it she was asked simply to put it away and get on with her lesson! I’ve never read it but I think I would like to, knowing how much my mother loved it.

    1. What a lovely story, Margaret – I think you should definitely read it even if just to get a greater understanding of your mum and her childhood through it. Hope you can track down a copy!

      1. As mentioned further up, Stratton-Porter’s books are out of copyright, and are therefore available for free in electronic form. And you don’t need an e-book reader to access them – there’s a free Kindle app on Amazon that can be downloaded to your PC.

  15. Here’s my extraordinary story about this book. There I was, 14 years old (1970’s) in the back-of-beyond in the Philippines. I’m climbing to the top of the Boy’s department’s library shelf (I went to a Catholic school where the boys are separated from girls) because somehow when I looked up, I saw “The Girl of the LImberlost” which my mother have always told me to read. I couldn’t believe they had the book! I LOVED IT.

  16. At an age of 10 or 11 I was really introduced to reading for fun by my 3 or 4th grade elementary teacher. Freckles was the book that hooked me. Every day I could hardly wait for the days chapter. I wish now that I could personally thank my 3rd or 4th grade teacher Crocket elementary Abilene, Texas

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