Yesterday marked the last performance of the symphony in my town. This year my family went to four events. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve been to a symphony but it was the first time that we did so as a family on a semi regular basis. I confess that while I was amazed at the music, my mind would drift and I would be reminded of the books I’ve read featuring musicians.
I realized that I can trace my whole life by the reading I’ve done. In my early years I read Anne of Green Gables, the Peppers, Nancy Drew, and Trixie Belden. In my high school years, I read a LOT of poetry from Sir Walter Scott to the Brownings to e.e. cumming. I also read the entire bibliography of Ayn Rand at the urging of my English teacher so I could write a paper for a college scholarship that I did not get. But, it wasn’t all for naught. At least now when people talk about her, I actually know what the heck John Galt means – and frankly, if you want to understand Rand just read Anthem. That 100 page novel tells you all you need to know about what influenced her writing.
But one of my favorite novels of my childhood is A Girl of the Limberlost and as I was sitting in the symphony, I realized that I was born with an angst spoon in my mouth. (Oh and I read a lot of Bible stories and if that’s not full of angst, I don’t know what is. Ruth loses her husband and follows her mother in law everywhere, picks wheat in a field, and then ultimately falls for the owner of the wheat field but she can’t marry him because he’s supposed to marry her sister-in-law, but Ruth goes to Boaz anyway – that hussy – and he can’t marry her AGAIN because some other man has the first right to do so but then ultimately they get together in an HEA).
When I was eleven or twelve, I discovered this book in my family’s cabin in the woods in Cable, a small town in the hinterlands of Wisconsin. It seems apt that I would read this book under a canopy of trees because Elnora Comstock was a girl of the woods herself.
What does this angst and the symphony and reading have to do with A Girl of the Limberlost? Because this, my friends, is about the tragic but triumphant story of Elnora Comstock, a girl who reaches above her station for a better life, and plays a violin while doing so. Elnora lives with her strict and bitter mother, Katherine who lost her husband in the Limberlost swamp. The loss of her husband is blamed on Elnora and Katherine keeps tight grip on the three hundred acres of land that they live on, arguing to Elnora that not one tree can be cut down or one acre sold due to enormous tax implications.
Elnora convinces her mother to allow Elnora to attend the city school but when Elnora arrives at her new school she finds herself at odds with her classmates, unfashionable in her long, full skirt and her plainly styled hair.
In a flash came the full realization of her scanty dress, her pitiful little hat and ribbon, her big, heavy shoes, her ignorance of where to go or what to do; and from a sickening wave which crept over her, she felt she was going to become very ill. Then out of the mass she saw a pair of big, brown boy eyes, three seats from her, and there was a message in them. Without moving his body he reached forward and with a pencil touched the back of the seat before him. Instantly Elnora took another step which brought her to a row of vacant front seats.
She heard laughter behind her; the knowledge that she wore the only hat in the room burned her; every matter of moment, and some of none at all, cut and stung.
Worse of all, Elnora has no books and she didn’t realize that there was a tuition to attend the city high school. But her mother did and never told Elnora, wanting Elnora to fail and to return home.
But Elnora, like every awesome bluestocking heroine to ever grace that flat fibrous substance called paper, excels at school. Elnora also learns that she can capture moths and other specimens in the swamp and woods owned by her mother and sell those specimens. With the help of her neighbors, Wesley and Margaret Sinton, Elnora manages to wear more fashionable clothing, buy books, and pay for her tuition. Her mother and she begin to come to a new understanding with Margaret’s interference. But secretly, Elnora learns something that will drive a stake into her newly repaired relationship with her mother.
For music always had affected her strangely, and since she had been comfortable enough in her surroundings to notice things, she had listened to every note to find what it was that literally hurt her heart, and at last she knew. It was the talking of the violins. They were human voices, and they spoke a language Elnora understood. It seemed to her that she must climb up on the stage, take the instruments from the fingers of the players and make them speak what was in her heart.
You see, Elnora’s father was a gifted fiddler.
The air was tremulous with heavenly notes, the lights went out in the hall, dusk swept across the stage, a cricket sang and a katydid answered, and a wood pewee wrung the heart with its lonesome cry. … The bird voices died and soft exquisite melody began to swell and roll. In the centre of the stage, piece by piece the grasses, mosses and leaves dropped from an embankment, the foliage softly blew away, while plainer and plainer came the outlines of a lovely girl figure draped in soft clinging green. In her shower of bright hair a few green leaves and white blossoms clung, and they fell over her robe down to her feet. Her white throat and arms were bare, she leaned forward a little and swayed with the melody, her eyes fast on the clouds above her, her lips parted, a pink tinge of exercise in her cheeks as she drew her bow. She played as only a peculiar chain of circumstances puts it in the power of a very few to play. All nature had grown still, the violin sobbed, sang, danced and quavered on alone, no voice in particular; the soul of the melody of all nature combined in one great outpouring.
At the doorway, a white-faced woman endured it as long as she could and then fell senseless. The men nearest carried her down the hall to the fountain, revived her, and then placed her in the carriage to which she directed them. The girl played on and never knew. When she finished, the uproar of applause sounded a block down the street, but the half-senseless woman scarcely realized what it meant. Then the girl came to the front of the stage, bowed, and lifting the violin she played her conception of an invitation to dance. Every living soul within sound of her notes strained their nerves to sit still and let only their hearts dance with her. When that began the woman ran toward the country. She never stopped until the carriage overtook her half-way to her cabin. She said she had grown tired of sitting, and walked on ahead. That night she asked Billy to remain with her and sleep on Elnora’s bed. Then she pitched headlong upon her own, and suffered agony of soul such as she never before had known. The swamp had sent back the soul of her loved dead and put it into the body of the daughter she resented, and it was almost more than she could endure and live.
As the Elnora’s high school years wane and she readies herself for college, Elnora must find one last moth, the Yellow Emperor, to complete a collection that will fund her higher education. When her mother accidentally kills the moth, Elnora’s belief that the two can repair their relationship is nearly struck dead. Elnora’s life is further complicated by the entrance of one Phillip Ammon who has come to recuperate from typhoid fever. He stays with Elnora and helps her catch moths and the two fall in love but Phillip is engaged to a wealthy and spoiled city girl.
If your heart isn’t broken already a million times over Elnora’s struggles with school and with her mother, her relationship with Phillip Ammon will do you in. Suffice to say that there are misunderstandings, a near death, but, most importantly, an HEA.
Elnora is the pluckiest of heroines but written in such a way that you can’t help but love her. You are disgusted with the class for not completely accepting her calico skirts and heavy boots. You are angry with the algebra teacher who doesn’t immediately recognize her mathematical brilliance. You are overcome with emotion at her love for the violin. You are gasping with delight at the new love she finds in Phillip and struck down when you learn he is engaged. Throughout the story, the angst train never stops, much like a symphonic composition with several movements of grave to allegro.
This book is free at Project Gutenberg and it’s one I hope to have my daughter read in a few years for there were few heroines I read as a girl who were more inspirational than Elnora Comstock with her courage, her moths, and her violin.