If you love Gene Stratton-Porter’s Freckles or A Girl of the Limberlost, I won’t guarantee that you’ll love A Daughter of the Land. As I read through it recently, I kept changing my mind about whether or not the author herself liked her main character, Kate Bates. In one instance Stratton-Porter would seem to want readers to admire Kate’s independent spirit. Then Kate, and sometimes those around her, would suffer because of an impetuous decision, which would appear to be a warning against being headstrong. I concluded that what feels like a conflict within the author is a result of her effort to depict real life. And this is where lovers of Stratton-Porter’s usual style may have difficulty appreciating the tone of this novel. This is not a fairytale.
Kate Bates is the sixteenth and youngest child in her family. “Her father always had driven himself and his family like slaves, while her mother had ably seconded his efforts.” Each son is rewarded, when he turns 21, with 200 acres of farmland which the entire family has pinched pennies to add to the Bates existing acreage. Each daughter is sent to school to become a teacher so she can earn her own living until she finds a husband. For her hard work on the farm, Kate expects the same reward her sisters have been given. When it is Kate’s turn to go to school, however, her parents decide they can’t spare her and she will have to remain at home to work.
Mr. and Mrs. Bates fail to reckon with the fact that Kate has inherited her father’s strong will. When Kate defies them, she is sent away from home and told that she may not come back. She believes she is prepared to face the implications of her parents’ ultimatum. The decision to go her own way leads to a series of difficult consequences which affect her and her children, and which eventually touch her entire family. All is not bleak, but the reader does wonder if things are ever going to come out “right” for Kate.
In an article published in 1919, “Why I Always Wear My Rose-Colored Glasses,” Gene Stratton-Porter deigns to answer the accusation by many critics that she is too optimistic and knows nothing of realism. “People even go so far as to assume that life has been such a rose-colored affair with me that I could not write realism if I would, because I have had no experience.” She goes on to enlighten readers (almost as though the details are being dragged from her) as to some of the “realism” she has lived through.
Near the end of that article, she comments on the effects of the recent World War on her optimism. “In this despondent mood I came the nearest I ever have come to writing a book of realism, because it was the only kind of book I could summon the courage to write.” A Daughter of the Land had been published the year before.
In her biography Gene Stratton-Porter, Novelist and Naturalist, Judith Reick Long relates that Gene’s only daughter Jeannette became infatuated with a man of whom her parents didn’t approve. When Jeannette was 21, she and her beau obtained a marriage license, “telephoned the Porter home and asked if they should be married away from Geneva, or at home. The wedding took place at the cabin two days later, on a Saturday afternoon.” From the start, Jeannette’s husband had trouble keeping a job, and the Porters were often called upon to help support their daughter and grandchildren. In 1920, Jeannette filed for divorce, “alleging habitual drunkenness, as well as cocaine abuse and infidelity.” It isn’t far-fetched to assume that watching her daughter suffer the consequences of her hasty marriage played into the development of Kate Bates’s character.
Stratton-Porter ends “Rose-Colored Glasses,” by asserting that, though her hope wavered during the war years, she had heard of so many heroic stories in the year since its end that her faith in mankind was being restored:
So when writing another book, even without wearing my rose-colored glasses, I shall have to tell only the truth to portray men at their best, and my pictures of them will still be bigger and better than any I have reproduced up to this time.
From this time until her death, Gene Stratton-Porter was, as she always had been, involved in several new projects. She was busily exploring California and learning its peculiar flora and fauna. She founded a movie studio, and threw herself into planning and working closely on the construction of a new mansion.
Graumann’s Third Street Theater had let Gene know that on Labor Day they’d had the biggest house in the history of the theater for a showing of “A Girl of the Limberlost.” She began writing Keeper of the Bees in September and was finished by November.
The plan was for Leo [Meehan] to write a screenplay for this new novel as soon as possible. Then a motion picture version of the novel would be released simultaneously with its serialization in McCall’s, due to begin the following spring.
Perhaps Gene Stratton-Porter was regaining her optimism. Though tinged by the fallout of the War, Keeper of the Bees, is often criticized for being too rosy. Gene was killed in an accident on December 6, 1924 and never saw the publication of this last novel. If she had to go, I’m thankful she was granted the time to complete Keeper. It’s the favorite of several of us at Plumfield and Paideia. You can read a full review here.