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REVIEW: A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter...

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.

Girl of the LimberlostI 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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Aoife
    May 12, 2013 @ 12:31:30

    I remember this one! This, and a related book, Freckles, was in a box of books that my parents brought home after my grandmother died, back in the 60’s. The angst quotient in Girl of the Limberlost is high, but is even higher in Freckles, if that’s possible.

    Thanks for the review! I’m off to PG to download this for a trip down memory lane….

  2. Meljean
    May 12, 2013 @ 12:44:58

    Downloading for the tot’s Kindle. God bless Project Gutenberg.

  3. Nicola O.
    May 12, 2013 @ 12:52:52

    I own this book, and Freckles too. The had belonged to my grandfather and were old and fragile when I read them 30 years ago. I will have to get new copies for my daughters because I think they are beyond readability now.

    I particularly remember the description of the basket of violets that Elnora prepared for Phillip’s fiance, because he had forgotten to acquire a gift for her. Porter’s nature descriptions were so incredibly lush and vivid.

    I have just been thinking about these books, relative to the new NA category, and relative to the notion that old school romances were also coming of age stories for the heroine. Literary history repeating itself?

  4. Molly O'Keefe
    May 12, 2013 @ 13:05:52

    My mom had Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles hidden in her old bedroom at my grandparents house. The crawlspace behind her bed is where she kept her girlhood books, all the dried corsages from her high school dances and old love-letters from the boys who gave her those flowers and about a gazillion Comic books of the old romance variety. That crawlspace was like a treasure map of girlhood into womanhood. The first step was Freckles and Girl of The Limberlost. I have incredible clear memories of reading those books by flashlight long after everyone thought I was asleep. What a fantastic thing to remember on Mother’s Day.

  5. Estara
    May 12, 2013 @ 13:44:16

    Lovely. I didn’t know USians had those kinds of books, too. We had them after the war (mostly girls who had lost their home and family in the war and found a new hope and chance at life and sometimes an implied love – rarely full on romance) and I got to know them in my church library and bought some when they were sold off to make way for new books. I found myself uplifted, too.

  6. Susan
    May 12, 2013 @ 13:48:06

    Wow. I own this book yet have never read it. I’ll certainly read it now, but suspect it won’t have the same resonance for someone coming to it for the first time as an adult. Wish I knew someone the right age to give it to.

  7. PatF
    May 12, 2013 @ 13:48:16

    In an age when teachers read aloud to their students for a few minutes each day, my 6th grade teacher read A Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles to our class. I have a daughter and four granddaughters and have given each of them a copy of that lovely story.

  8. Dabney
    May 12, 2013 @ 14:50:55

    Your review made me think of Mrs. Mike, a book I read when I was eleven. I too can define my life by the books I read although, for me, the easiest way to my memories is aurally. I’d never heard of this book and have downloaded it and Freckles . Thanks.

  9. Jane Davitt
    May 12, 2013 @ 15:33:03

    I’ve read all her books and own some lovely old editions with gorgeous illustrations covered with tissue paper. Some of the later ones are hugely problematic from many angles (Her Father’s Daughter is great in places but there’s this vile subplot about the Yellow Peril that makes me speechless with annoyance even when I make allowances for the time of writing and Daughter of the Land and The White Flag are meh and depressing.

    I just reread The Harvester for the zillionth time. Love that one so much. David is a darling and the scene where he realizes he’s used antique willow ware to store oil, paint and birdseed is hilarious.

  10. Donna Thorland
    May 12, 2013 @ 17:05:31

    I will have to check this book out. So glad I am not the only one who remembers Trixie Belden!

  11. pooks
    May 12, 2013 @ 17:12:42

    Be still my heart. Not only did you mention some of my childhood staples–Nancy Drew, the Peppers, Trixie Belden (did you read the Edward Eagers, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins?) but this–Girl of the Limberlost.

    My mother had that very book and loved it as a girl. I found it on our bookshelf independently and read it and loved it, and was astonished to find out she’d read it first. I don’t know why. It seemed like it was a magic book waiting just for me. The fact that it had a secret history and had been loved before was a revelation.

    I don’t remember the details. I stopped reading your review and thoughts when I realized that. I want to rediscover it again. Thank you for writing about it.

    Especially today, on Mother’s Day.

  12. Barb in Maryland
    May 12, 2013 @ 17:47:42

    Oh! the memories!! My grandparents had a copy (as I do believe every household of that generation did) and I know I read it during one visit to their house. Their home library also had other staples of the Edwardian era, like the Graustark books, which also fed my adolescent love of angsty romance.
    @Estara–this book was originally published in 1909, but the lush prose doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to avid readers. (I am fairly sure that I am old enough to be Jane’s mom!)

  13. Jolie Jacq
    May 12, 2013 @ 17:57:04

    I had plans for the book I was going to start today…well, plans change. When I saw the image to accompany this review I thought it was unlikely I’d be able to find a copy, so I was delighted to reach the end of the post and find the link for the free download. My new plan is to spend the day having my heart broken and enjoying every minute of it. Thanks for the great review.

  14. Jenny Schwartz
    May 12, 2013 @ 18:19:55

    Now you’ve sent me down memory lane. Thanks, Jane! Mum had a copy of “Michael O’Halloran”. Now that was pure melodrama — and got me hooked. I liked Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles (such a sweetie). I’ve also got an old, tiny print copy of “Keeper of the Bees”. That was fascinating because it starts in the aftermath of WWI and the hero is a US veteran who is being left to die (in effect).

  15. Miranda Neville
    May 12, 2013 @ 18:43:18

    This is one of my all time favorite books. So glad it see it getting some love.

  16. Jane Davitt
    May 12, 2013 @ 20:08:50

    @Jenny Schwartz:
    Keeper of the Bees is the only one I couldn’t find for download; so strange. I own it as a book but I have the others as ebooks too since they’re so old they’re free. Must be a copyright issue.

  17. cleo
    May 12, 2013 @ 21:32:24

    I never read this – I’ve never even heard of it. I may have to check it out. I did read Anne of Green Gables and Trixie Belden (and Judy Bolten and Cherry Ames and many others). I remember reading Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Little Colonel books by Annie Fellows Johnston (have no idea how well that series holds up) at my grandmother’s.

  18. Cecelia
    May 12, 2013 @ 21:41:43

    God bless this book. I’ve read it 20-25 times at this point (I used to read it once or twice a year like clockwork), and I have so many fond memories of taking it on camping trips, and using the information within to try to lure moths (only once – it ended badly). I read my childhood paperback to pieces, but luckily found another copy at a secondhand shop a couple of years ago. I plan to pass it on to the next generation!

  19. Jenny Schwartz
    May 13, 2013 @ 00:27:47

    @Jane Davitt: I went looking, too, and couldn’t find an ecopy.

    Jean Webster and Daddylonglegs was the other story I was thinking of. Wasn’t it Fred Astaire in the movie (or am I making that up?)? off to google!

  20. Kay Sisk
    May 13, 2013 @ 09:13:34

    So many books and fond memories gathered from grandmother houses!

    As a grandmother with a 6-year-old granddaughter, I’m going to take a stern look at my bookshelves and see what I have stocked for future reading and repair any holes!

    Thanks for all the suggestions,
    Former reader of Nancy and Cherry and Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins, Secret Garden, Little Women…

  21. Mireya
    May 13, 2013 @ 09:35:50

    When I was a child I read exclusively in Spanish. However, I did get to read several American classics and stories translated into Spanish. Aside from the obvious Louisa May Alcott’s titles, my favorite was “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”. I am going to download this one. It does sound like a lovely read.

  22. Teresa
    May 13, 2013 @ 09:42:48

    I’m going to download this book to enjoy for the first time. I just recently bought A Wrinkle in Time and Island of the Blue Dolphins for a friend’s daughter. I wonder if these older novels are still enjoyed by young girls today. I would love to hear stories of young girls today and how they are enjoying these classic stories.

  23. Jane
    May 13, 2013 @ 09:45:57

    @Teresa: My tot and I are reading A Wrinkle in Time right now and she is loving it. We read a chapter a night and she gets angry when the chapter is done. We read Island of the Blue Dolphins last year, and again she loved it. She particularly loved the wolves as pets, though.

  24. DS
    May 13, 2013 @ 10:10:56

    Good for you bringing this book up. I had a lot of these type of books, along with access to a neighbor’s almost complete set of Kipling. I will forgive Kipling his “white man’s burden” because of Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies.

    There were also a lot of girls series like Nancy Drew. One series I remember loving for a reason that I did not understand in those days (probably published in the 1920s-1930s, my copies were falling a part in the early 60s) involved a hearty young athletic girl and her good friend, a willowy young man who had a talent for the violin. Except for some reason I don’t remember her good friend was a cross dressing girl.

  25. cleo
    May 13, 2013 @ 10:49:18

    @Teresa: My 6 yo niece is a big fan of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (her mom read them out loud to her), so I think that “kids today” still read some older books. She’s still a bit young for most of the older books mentioned here.

  26. Aoife
    May 13, 2013 @ 12:21:07

    I also have fond memories of “What Katy Did,” and the sequels, although I wonder how much I would enjoy it now. That was another one from the early 1900’s, with all the “And the moral of this story is…” that is implied by that. I’ll have to look and see if Project Gutenberg has that one.

  27. carmen webster buxton
    May 14, 2013 @ 10:50:18

    I loved Freckles. I still remember the heroine’s agitation when she discovers Freckles’ father (or maybe it was grandfather) was a “lord man” (aristocrat)– 180 degrees from Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. I will have to try GotL since you promsed me the HEA.

    Trixie Belden! That takes me back like nothing else! No one ever “put on” clothes; they always “donned” them.

  28. Dabney
    Aug 13, 2013 @ 09:50:03

    This new release must be inspired by Porter’s book. It’s on Netgalley.

    The Grrrl of Limberlost
    A Rain City Comedy of Manners

    by Annie Pearson

  29. Regan
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 18:53:04

    Do you remember the name of that series?

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