A Girl of the Limberlost

August 27, 2009

I’d read A Girl of the Limberlost a long time ago, and although I remembered the basic outline of the story, I don’t think it really made much of an impression on me. This time around — well, mostly it just reminded me of Marie Conway Oemler. Enough to make me feel like I don’t need to reread A Woman Named Smith just yet, but not so much that I do feel like I need to reread Slippy McGee.

There are some fairly obvious similarities, from the character list at the beginning to the preoccupation with moths — things that make me think that Oemler, who was writing about ten years later, was definitely aware of Gene Stratton-Porter. Certain details in Oemler’s stories, especially The Purple Heights, show some deeper similarities, but while Oemler owes a lot to Stratton-Porter, I don’t have to switch favorites just yet — nothing in A Girl of the Limberlost made me grin to myself like a crazy person — although I did, at one point, say, “Oh no, not brain fever!” out loud. Why does it always have to be brain fever?

The title character of A Girl of the Limberlost is Elnora Comstock. She lives with her mother, Kate, in a cottage on their very valuable piece of land — it has trees to be cut down, fertile land for farming, and oil somewhere underneath, but Kate refuses to make use of any of these resources because she keeps the whole property as a shrine to her husband, Robert, who died the day Elnora was born. Kate is pretty bitter, and sort of hates Elnora because her birth prevented Kate from saving Robert from drowning in the swamp. So, Elnora’s childhood hasn’t been very happy, to say the least. But she does have their neighbors, Margaret and Wesley Sinton, to run to whenever things get really bad, and she spends a lot of time in the swamp, collecting moths and things.

When the story opens, she is sixteen and just starting school in the nearby town of Onabasha. She starts out as the typical badly-dressed country girl who gets picked on a lot, but then the Sintons get her some new clothes, and she finds that she can sell the moths and other things she’s collected to the Bird Woman, a local naturalist. Elnora makes friends, the Sintons adopt a starving urchin who used to hold Elnora up for her lunch on the way to school, and eventually Kate learns that her husband wasn’t such a great guy and comes to love Elnora.

And that seems like it would be a reasonable end for a book, right? But really, we’re only halfway through, because shortly after Elnora graduates from high school, a cute guy shows up. His name is Philip Ammon, and he’s staying in Onabasha with his uncle, the doctor, while he recovers from an illness. He’s interested in moths, so he starts helping Elnora collect them. He’s clearly interested in Elnora, too, but as he tells her pretty early on in their friendship, he’s engaged to a girl in Chicago named Edith Carr.

Edith is one of those girls in books who are beautiful and interesting enough for the hero to fall in love with, but vain and petty enough for the readers and the heroine to see through right away. She’s not as cool as the fiance in Molly Make-Believe, but she’s cooler than Peggy O’Malley‘s sister.

So, back when she was figuring out that her husband was kind of a jerk and her daughter was pretty great, Kate had accidentally wiped out a quarter of the collection of moths Elnora was making for a guy in India, starting with the yellow Imperials, which seem to be the hardest to find. Philip helps her make up most of the collection during the summer, but by the time she starts teaching school in the fall, the Imperials are still missing.

Back in Chicago, Phil throws a big party for Edith — maybe to announce their engagement? I wasn’t really clear on that. Anyway, he helps her design a dress based on the colors of the Imperial moth, and of course she looks amazing in it. During the dance, one of the moths flies through the room, and Philip goes chasing after it. People think he’s going to bring it back for Edith, since it, you know, matches her dress, but he immediately mails it off to Elnora, because her completed collection will be worth $300 and she needs the money. Edith feels slighted, though, and breaks off the engagement right then and there. She and Phil are both really angry, each feeling that the other has publicly humilated them.

I love it when characters in books have lots of long candid conversations about their feelings without, apparently, feeing awkward about it. And that’s what happens next. Philip quickly transfers his affections from Edith to Elnora, but Elnora takes some convincing. So does Edith. She visits Elnora and they sort of fight over Phil, but in such a way that Elnora seems both honorable and modest, and Edith is neither. Elnora runs off to spend a few weeks with the characters from Freckles, Stratton-Porter’s previous book, and Phil proves Edith wrong about his feelings for her by literally worrying himself sick about Elnora. This is where the brain fever comes in.

Stratton-Porter was okay on the happy ending, I think, but Oemler did brain fever way better.


  1. This is a beautiful 20th century book about Elnora Comstock. The story begins sadly, as Elnora never got to know her father and has been ignored by her mother, who is wrapped in her grief. Things begin to look up as Elnora manages to begin attending school, pays her way by catching rare moths, and earns the respect of all as she matures into an attractive, intelligent, and caring young lady. The middle of the story is truly heartwarming, as Elnora’s mother finally comes to grips with her grief, and there is even romance in the second half of the book. A truly wonderful book, with many insights into nature wrapped in along the way.

    • Perhaps my review of this book isn’t the best place for your synopsis?

  2. I actually found a recommendation for this one on a different site, and it seemed like it might be something you had read. I came to check and sure enough, you had.

    While I liked this book, I had certain reservations. For one thing, it felt almost as though it would have done better as a series with some more fleshing out of some of the side characters. Perhaps her school fellows, for example. It felt jarring how they all grew to like her after less than a week or so once she got her new clothes and then, suddenly, the four years of high school are passed by in one paragraph. Writing it here, it seems kind of petty, but it felt like there were many threads of stories that Stratton-Porter would tease the reader with and then drop them with nary a mention for the rest of the book. An example is Pete Corson, whose entrance as a peeping-tom type was quite unsettling and creepy, however, then he helps both Elnora and her mother. He is someone I wanted to know more about but then he disappeared in the second half of the book.

    My favorite part of the book is the relationship between Elnora and her mother, how it develops and evolves over time. I was hoping from the beginning that the mother would have a change of heart, but I’m also a sucker for stories of reconciliation of parents and children. I loved the chapters around Elnora’s graduation when her mother begins to realize what her actions have caused and to see some of the flaws in her own character.

    Another great part for me was the first parting of Elnora and Philip where he slips into unfaithfulness to his fiancé, and Elnora tells him that she has never liked him less than at that moment. In fact, the other strong point of the book was Elnora’s grit and strength of character in any situation.

    Overall, I liked the book and would probably read it again, but it certainly was not perfect.

    • I almost didn’t review Girl of the Limberlost here because it’s more of a classic than most of the books I write about.

      It is kind of a weird book structurally — like it’s a few different books, and none of them gets all the time it needs. And I agree that Elnora’s relationship with her mother is the most interesting part of the book.

  3. Sounds as if Gene Stratton Porter may not generally be your cup of tea (and I agree, one book of hers in particular stands out as incredibly racist regarding Japanese immigration and the “Yellow Peril”) , but you might consider reading “The Harvester,” which is one of those fall-in-love-with-your-husband/wife stories, albeit with a lot of details about growing ginseng. As a piece of literature, it’s certainly flawed, and the hero is a male Mary Sue type, but was kind of a sweet fun read nonetheless

    • I like Gene Stratton Porter, and I always mean to read more of her books, I just don’t have the level of affection for her that I do for Marie Conway Oemler, and also I like Freckles a lot more than Girl of the Limberlost. He/she fell in love with his/her wife/husband plus details about growing ginseng sounds very much like my jam.

  4. I think i have a copy or two of this.Still not sure if I’d want to read it. As you say,it is rather too close to being a “classic novel” (something I loosly define as rather too interested in the psychological problems of it’s characters rather than their more interesting circumstances and adventures).
    I’d quite happily never heard of this author before. Darn you, Melodie Biblios!!! Do you know that wikipedia doesn’t even have a page for this author.. hint hint .

    • There is absolutely a Wikipedia page for Gene Stratton-Porter.

      A Girl of the Limberlost is more of a classic by virtue of long popularity than literariness. It’s got a pretty good balance of inner thoughts and exciting happenings. You seem to like books that are more focused on men, though, so maybe take a look at Freckles, which is about a young man doing hard and sometimes dangerous work, and learning about nature and himself.

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