Social Class as a False Marker of Virtue: A Girl of the Limberlost

It turns out that A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton-Porter is a sequel to another book, called Freckles. I realized this as I marked A Girl of the Limberlost as “read” on Goodreads, and saw that it was labeled #2. And then I realized that a character in the book, Freckles, whom I had no context for and couldn’t figure out where he fit into the rest of the plot, was the title character of the first book.

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Limberlost is about Elnora Comstock, a young girl who lives in the woods with her angry and depressed mother. Elnora wants to attend high school, and studies hard to get there, but her mother is unkind and seems to want to see her fail. Elnora gets into high school anyway, and finds herself ridiculed and standing out like a sore thumb. She’s out of fashion and doesn’t know where to buy her books.

The next few sections of the book focus on Elnora’s “makeover” and her ability to become like the other children. Her Aunt Margaret and Uncle Wesley help, and eventually her mother comes around. As the psychological pain her mother is suffering from (due to the death of Elnora’s father) is brought to light, Elnora’s mother becomes loving and kind. It is a fairy tale, but a nice one.

Elnora is a dear girl. She deserves a good and loving mother. She also works hard to earn all of the thing she needs for school. She does this by collecting moths in the Limberlost forest and selling them to the Bird Woman. Elnora finds rare species and knows much about biology and insects because of it. (This part of the novel reminded me of another children’s series called The Melendy Quartet; in one of those books, Oliver shines his flashlight into the night sky and draws moths to his bedroom window for examination.) Not only does Elnora’s hobby pay for school, but when she graduates from high school, it earns her a job as a teacher of the natural sciences. This she must do because she has failed to save enough money for college, and her mother tries to help her find a particular rare species of moth, the golden emperor, that will earn her the money, but they fail spectacularly.

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Elnora’s transformation in this first part of the novel, while interesting and uplifting, troubled me. I wanted to see Elnora complete her dream of attending college and become a talented violinist. However, the thrust of her success in this section seems to have been her looks and her materialism. As she makes new dresses, learns to shine and comb her hair, wears the right shoes, and packs the right sort of lunch, she becomes happy and fulfilled. While such conformity can certainly add to one’s social happiness, these material possessions aren’t really what make a person successful. And we see strains of that truth in Elnora’s generosity. Yet the novel promotes physical and material transformation as the most pertinent and interesting. I disagree, and I argue that intellectual and spiritual transformation, which Elnora certainly exhibits, are more important. However, the book focuses little on these attributes.

The narrative then skips ahead to Elnora’s graduation and disappointment at not having enough money for college. As she stays home that summer to collect more moths, a fascinating and educational aspect of the book for me, she meets a young man visiting from Chicago in order to recover from illness. He grows stronger and begins helping Elnora with her moth collecting. However, he’s engaged to marry somebody else, and Elnora keeps her romantic feelings in check.

The final conflicts and resolution of the novel focus on this love triangle, with Elnora eventually triumphing. She does so in the most virtuous, straightforward, and moral way, making sure that Phillip is over his fiancée and that he stopped loving her because of her spoiled and selfish nature and her mistreatment of him. Elnora does not interfere and accept Phillip’s exclamations of love and proposal of marriage until she is sure he is free.

This young adult tale has three interesting aspects. First, the educational one, in which we see how important education is to the “country girl” Elnora and how well she does in that environment. It is a fable of the country girl becoming important and making her way in the world or the “big city.” Second, I appreciated the naturalistic aspects of this novel. There’s a case to be made that it is an environmental treatise, especially since part of Elnora’s financial trouble comes because her mother will not allow oil wells to be built on their land. However, when her mother goes through her own “extreme makeover” (wearing the right clothes, living in the right part of town, and taking care of her skin), she gives into the oil wells for money. Third, there’s a romantic aspect, one that promotes virtue and pure romance.

I liked A Girl of the Limberlost for what it is, but I was disappointed at its simple theme of money and materialism leading to happiness. From this book, readers will “learn” that in order to be happy, one must dress correctly and have material goods and the money to purchase those with. I dislike this overall message, despite the seemingly innocent and pure circumstances in which it is presented. However, I recognize that this book is a product of its time, and the author either believed in the importance of social class as a marker of virtue, or felt pressure to write a tale in a way that publishers and readers expected.

No matter the deeper meanings and somewhat shallow ideologies promoted in this book, it was an enjoyable read. It was one I tried to force-read to my daughter when she was sick, but we quickly realized it was more for young adults, rather than preteens. I’m glad to have become acquainted with this novel, and I plan to read the prequel, Freckles.

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