A Girl of the LimberlostAugust 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.