“The scene was intensely attractive. The thickness of the swamp made a dark, massive background below, while above towered gigantic trees. The men were calling jovially back and forth as they unharnessed tired horses that fell into attitudes of rest and crunched, in deep content, the grain given them. Duncan, the brawny Scotch head-teamster, lovingly wiped the flanks of his big bays with handfuls of pawpaw leaves, as he softly whistled, ‘O wha will be my dearie, O!’ and a cricket beneath the leaves at his feet accompanied him. The green wood fire hissed and crackled merrily. Wreathing tongues of flame wrapped around the big black kettles, and when the cook lifted the lids to plunge in his testing-fork, gusts of savoury odours escaped.” –Freckles

Now isn’t that a fine start to a story!? This third paragraph of the first chapter of Freckles brilliantly sets the tone for the story that is about to unfold. Sure, we know little of the story itself, but this paragraph in all of its sensory description invites us into a scene pregnant with life and natural beauty. Not only is Duncan singing in accent, but the cricket accompanies him. The large hard-working bays are dwarfed in size by the enormity of the gigantic trees surrounding them. The cooking fires are fierce and untamed like the thick surrounding swamp, which is anything but safe. In all of this, Duncan, the man, is taming the wild by using those tree leaves to rub his horses down, and the cooks are using the fire to make something savory and delicious for the teamsters to eat. This is the way Gene Stratton-Porter writes. A daughter of the Limberlost, she is captivated by the beauty and the wild and wishes for her readers to be so also. Her stories are as much about the natural things as they are about the human ones.

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So often in stories, authors attempt to describe the scenic beauty of their story setting. In the really good books, these scenes can be well done. Rare is it, however, that such scenes are intrinsically connected to the story. Something more than window dressing, but not really something entirely of its own, this kind of description is usually applied to enrich the story. In the case of Porter, however, it is the other way around. Her stories are often the vehicle through which we are invited into the natural scene. Instead of being where the story is set, they are the inspiration for the story itself. To Porter, the Limberlost (or any of the other natural settings she writes about) was a vibrant and exciting living thing. She saw the swamp as a character onto itself.

In this article I must review Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost together. While each story is capable of standing on its own, and Girl is not exactly a sequel to Freckles, the two stories are part of a set. For some reason, many booklists recommend A Girl of the Limberlost for teenage girl readers and Freckles for teenage boy readers. I suppose this is because the title characters are respectively, a girl and a boy. But I think this is a serious miscalculation. These two books are a set and probably should be read as such. Also, readers of Girl will have some of Freckles ruined for them if they read out of order. When Girl opens, Freckles has left the swamp, his success is well know, his specimen box and “Cathedral” are left in the care of Eleanor. Later in the story, his future life is revealed. While I do not love the ending of Freckles, I would not have wanted it ruined for me by reading these books out of order. Also, Girl is a darker and harder book. If you are reading with young people, it is so much better to approach it with the happy memories of Freckles in your heart.

I lead a book club for young readers in my local community. This summer we read Freckles and Girl together in August. Our discussion was exciting! This particular club was for girls 10-16. Half of the girls strongly preferred Freckles and half cherished Girl. All universally agreed that the ending to Freckles was cheesy, but that we all loved seeing Freckles and The Angel in Girl. Nearly two thirds of the girls thought Elnora was “too perfect” and unbelievable. One third had a soft spot for her and understood that, like Emily of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, Elnora was living in a hard situation which demanded her to be as perfect as possible. All of my girls thought Porter’s writing was something like Montgomery’s and Alcott’s, and they are eager to read more.

Freckles “might have been mistaken for a tramp, but he was truly seeking work. He was intensely eager to belong somewhere and to be attached to almost any enterprise that would furnish him food and clothing.” Our title character is an orphan with one maimed arm (missing a hand), an Irish lilt to his speech, and no proper name. Not much more than a boy, he is friendless, homeless, and hungry. But while the world rendered him incomplete, God preserved the character and hope that were Freckles’ defining characteristics. And, as the story unfolds, that is really all that matters.  

When the story opens, Freckles uses all of his Irish stubbornness and his God-given good character to convince Duncan to hire him as a Limberlost guard. Duncan, not only the teamaster but partner in the timber company, needs a “reliable, brave, strong man who will guard (200 acres of the Limberlost) every hour of the day and sleep with one eye open at night.” For one year, such a guard will walk the length of the trail twice a day to check that none of the trees are being stolen by lumber thieves. It is a hard, cold, terrifying, and dangerous job. The Limberlost is dangerous all on its own with rattlesnakes, swamp pits, and severe winter weather. But, more than that, a disgruntled and desperate gang of men are trying to mark and steal the trees before Duncan’s crew can finish the work they are on and move to the Limberlost lease. Our plucky title character does get the job and proves his worth more than once before the end of the story.

“Freckles,” he said at last, “we never know the timber of a man’s soul until something cuts into him deeply and brings the grain out strong.” – Freckles

This is part of Porter’s genius. By having Freckles guard the unoccupied Limberlost, the swamp itself must become a character in the story. Freckles spends a year with very little human interaction. He lives with a good family on the edge of the lease, he develops an excellent relationship with Duncan, near the end he becomes a help to the Bird Woman and her pretty young helper; but all of Freckles’s days are spent in the woods and his friends become the critters that dwell there. With this story line in place, Porter is able to help us fall in love with the natural life of the swamp just as Freckles does. We learn how he learns to identify birds, how he captures butterflies, and what he sees in the flora.  We are enchanted by the “Cathedral” that he builds out of the plants and flowers of the Limberlost. It is impossible not to want to run out on a nature hike while reading this marvelous story.

“Freckles lifted his hat and faced the sky. The harvest moon looked down, sheeting the swamp in silver glory. The Limberlost sang her night song. The swale softly rustled in the wind. Winged things of night brushed his face; and still Freckles gazed upward, trying to fathom these things that had come to him. There was no help from the sky. It seemed far away, cold, and blue. The earth, where flowers, blossomed angels walked, and love could be found, was better. But to One, above, he must make acknowledgment of these for these miracles. His lips moved and he began talking softly.” – Freckles

I have hinted that the ending of Freckles is strange. I think it is. Without spoiling it, I will say that it is a break from the rest of the story. Apparently, Porter did not want to end the book a certain way but her publishers required it of her. Giving them what they wanted and not what she thought was right, she wrote an over-the-top saccharine-sweet ending that almost ruins the book. I have read Freckles at least four times and am sure to re-read it many more times. The ending has never prevented me from wanting to read Freckles again. The rest of the book is just too good to take the ending too seriously.

Freckles is truly wonderful. My nine year old daughter has listened to it on Audible many times. In fact, she loves it so much that when she finishes it, she starts it again. She loves the innocence and integrity of Freckles. Not unexpectedly, she struggled to listen to A Girl of the Limberlost and did not care for it. I knew she was too young for the book. She didn’t want to skip the book club, however, so I let her try. I am sure that she will appreciate Girl much more in a few years when she is more mature and ready for something harder and darker.  

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At 479 pages, A Girl of the Limberlost is 125 pages longer than Freckles. It really is a different kind of book.

“Elnora walked by instinct, for her eyes were blinded with tears. She left the road where it turned south at the corner of the Limberlost, climbed a snake fence and entered a path worn by her own feet. Dodging under willow and scrub oak branches she at last came to the faint outline of an old trail made in the days when the precious timber of the swamp was guarded by armed men. This path she followed until she reached a thick clump of bushes. From the debris in the end of a hollow log she took a key that unlocked the padlock of a large weatherbeaten old box, inside of which lay several books, a butterfly apparatus, and an old cracked mirror. The walls were lined thickly with gaudy butterflies, dragon-flies, and moths. She set up the mirror, and once more pulling the ribbon from her hair, she shook the bright mass over her shoulders, tossing it dry in the sunshine…. Behind her lay the land on which she had been born to drudgery and a mother who made no pretence of loving her; before her lay the city through whose schools she hoped to find the means of escape and the way to reach the things for which she cared.” – A Girl of the Limberlost

Elnora Comstock  is the daughter of a heartbroken and bitter woman who watched her husband die in the swamp when she was in labor and unable to save him. Mrs. Comstock blames, resents, and harshly treats the innocent Elnora. Despite loving the Limberlost, Elnora wants to find a way out of the emotional prison. She hopes that school will be that way out.

For nearly half of this book, I felt for Elnora as I had felt when reading L. M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon. I had such pity for the resilient and bright soul who was suffering from neglect and abuse. The good news is that things do change. Something incredible happens and the second half of the story is completely different from the first half. Like night to day. In both halves of the story, however, the cause of Elnora’s grief, the Limberlost, is also the source of her salvation.

“Is the Bird Woman at home?” she asked of the maid.

“She is at lunch,” was the answer.

“Please ask her if she will see a girl from the Limberlost about some moths?” inquired Elnora.

“I never need ask, if it’s moths,” laughed the girl. “Orders are to bring any one with specimens right in. Come this way.” -A Girl of the Limberlost

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I love it when an author writes herself into the story. In both Freckles and Girl, Porter wrote herself in as The Bird Woman. I love the author and I love the character! At the first fateful meeting between Elnora and The Bird Woman, Elnora confesses some of her struggles. The Bird Woman, not usually affectionate, kisses the pitiable girl.

“Finish your lunch,” she said, “and I will get my price lists, and take down a memorandum of what you think you have, so I will know how many boxes to prepare. And remember this: What you are lies with you. If you are lazy and accept your lot, you may live in it. If you are willing to work, you can write your name anywhere you choose, among the only ones who live past the grave in this world – the people who write books that help, make exquisite music, carve statues, paint pictures, and work for others. Never mind the calico dress, and the coarse shoes. Dig into the books, and before long you will hear yesterday’s tormentors boasting that they were once classmates of yours…”

Even more so than in Freckles, Porter worked in gorgeous descriptions of moths, butterflies, and other beautiful Limberlost treasures. After reading this book, my kids and I purchased a stash of petri dishes so that we could keep their collected specimens. At one point in the story, some of the specimens are destroyed because the live and trapped moths war with each other ripping each other apart. We learn that the correct way to collect these delicate creatures is to put a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol into the petri dish with the live specimen. Within two hours each of our creatures die peacefully and are easy to keep in good shape.

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At one point in the story, Porter dresses the girls in dresses which were made specifically to resemble moths. The photo above captures the beauty of that!

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Photo Credit: Elizabeth Laumas

These two stories are wonderful in every way. The gorgeous language, elegant descriptions, noble characters, and realistic challenges are truly inspiring. I consider these two books must-reads for my children in their middle school/high school years.

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