February Favorites: A Girl of the Limberlost

AGotLI was all set to post about something else today, but I woke up this morning thinking about Elnora and couldn’t wait. You see, Elnora Comstock, the protagonist of A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter is very important to me. I know many of you hold Anne Shirley as the kindred spirit of your girlhood heart, but while I love Anne, Elnora is mine. If Porter had written more than one book about Elnora’s life, I would gladly have read every one.

Published first in 1909, A Girl of the Limberlost was a sort of sequel to Porter’s wildly popular book, Freckles. While conforming to many of the conventions of the “sentimental” genre, one of Porter’s main goals was to make people aware of conservation issues in the Indiana wetlands. You might not think of Indiana as a place where there are many “wetland” areas, and you’d be right. In 1909, the Limberlost was already dying out, due to heavy logging and oil drilling.

Porter wanted to draw attention to the unique landscapes and creatures that would be destroyed if the Limberlost couldn’t be preserved. In both novels, the Limberlost is as much as character as any human. Unfortunately, Porter’s efforts weren’t enough and the area’s unique ecology was destroyed. At eight, when I found out the Limberlost didn’t exist anymore I was completely devastated. As a child, living on the edge of an ancient Indiana forest, complete with sinkholes, I knew all too well how enchanting the woods can be.

Even a child such as myself, who would have rather been inside with a book, could see that Elnora’s Limberlost deserved to be saved. Elnora was the one to convince me. The novel traces her path from a determined high school student to a successful conservationist/teacher. Today, Elnora might be labeled a “Mary Sue,” but in actuality, she’s a remarkably complex character.

While Elnora does turn out to be a pretty young woman, her value lies in being smart and talented. The novel emphasizes that Elnora is an excellent student, a natural musician and a kind person, overall. Porter manages to set an example through Elnora, without any of the syrupy sweetness that many of her contemporaries imbued in their female protagonists.

As an adult, one of the things I love best about Elnora is that when her dreams don’t work out exactly as planned, she figures things out. She hustles to make ends meet when she misspends her money, and ultimately she learns a lesson many of us know all too well: when your dream dies, you find a new dream. Among Elnora’s many virtues, I think her resilience stands out to today’s readers as something exceptional.

There is a romance in A Girl of the Limberlost, but when Elnora meets Philip Ammon (the swoony love interest), he’s engaged to someone else. Elnora wisely draws clear boundaries and keeps dear Phil at arm’s length until he’s free. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let’s just say that Elnora wins at doing the right thing and there’s a satisfying showdown between her and socialite Edith Carr (the fiancee).

Speaking of Edith, she’s not your typical Victorian lady-rival. She’s as multi-faceted as the rest of the novels characters. Porter seems committed in A Girl of the Limberlost to showcasing the ways life changes us, both for better and worse. I liked Freckles well enough, but A Girl of the Limberlost surpasses it by far in sophistication and charm. It’s what’s makes it so easy to pick up for my yearly trip to the swamp. Now that I’m back in the Midwest, I often think of the Limberlost when I’m on a hike, and unlike le Cirque des Rêves or Narnia, some days it seems just around the next bend in the trail.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, a cat herder, a hiker and a lover of the Limberlost. And yes, that is a photo of her first-edition copy of the A Girl of the Limberlost. Someone in her life gives wonderful presents. She’s a terrible multi-tasker and her hair is definitely a bird’s nest today. You can visit her on twitter or at her website if you want to check in.

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