Her Father’s Daughter

I wonder if Gene Stratton-Porter’s success went to her head. She was always opinionated, but in Her Father’s Daughter, she reaches her height of preachiness. If it were only that, it wouldn’t be an insurmountable aspect of the story. We put up with a bit of that from other beloved authors. In this book, Stratton-Porter preaches hard about Americanism. This is completely understandable, given the time, shortly after WWI. This theme recurs in Keeper of the Bees. However, Americanism takes a nasty turn in this, her first novel published after her move to California.

I have often advocated open-minded understanding of the prejudices of the time in which novels take place. Part of the value of reading old books is in learning how people of an era other than our own lived and thought and felt. Stratton-Porter often comments on the background of her characters. Perhaps one woman is superstitious because she’s Irish. A particular man is frugal because he is of Scotch descent. These prejudices were common during Stratton-Porter’s lifetime. Typically, I don’t believe these observations are meant to be hurtful. With this understanding, it would be possible to gloss over this comment by our heroine on the first page.

When you see me allowing any Jap in my class to make higher grades than I do, then I give you leave to say anything you please concerning my head.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated comment, but is the first brick in the building of one of the major themes of the story. No self-respecting white boy (or girl) should allow any “little brown . . cocoanut headed Jap” to get the better of him.

Our heroine, Linda Strong, though only a junior in high school, is apparently the only person in her circle of acquaintance who sees the danger. Even the adult men in her life need an occasional lecture on the grievous threat of the Yellow Peril. She tells her friend, Donald, who is a high school senior:

I never wanted anything in all this world worse than I want to see you graduate ahead of Oka Sayye. And then I want to see the white boys and girls of Canada and of England and of Norway and Sweden and Australia, and of the whole world doing exactly what I am recommending that you do in your class and what I am doing personally in my own. I have had Japs in my classes ever since I have been in school, but Father always told me to study them, to play the game fairly, but to BEAT them in some way, in some fair way, to beat them at the game they are undertaking.

Whenever a white man makes up his mind what he’s going to do, and puts his brain to work, he beats any man, of any other color. Sure you’re going to beat him.

Donald’s father, a judge, needs to know:

There’s a showdown coming between the white race and a mighty aggregation of colored peoples one of these days, and if the white man doesn’t realize pretty soon that his supremacy is not only going to be contested but may be lost, it just simply will be lost; that is all there is to it.

Gene Stratton-Porter wants us to love and admire Linda Strong. I get the sense that the author is trying to reprise Elnora Comstock, the Girl of the Limberlost. Linda is likeable in some ways, but she’s just a bit too much to be believable. She and her older sister have been orphans for four years. But, because Linda spent so much time absorbing her father’s wisdom, she is capable and intelligent beyond her years. Of course, she is completely guileless and well-meaning. Though her sister, who has control of their parents’ estate, keeps Linda in relative poverty, Linda has already figured out a way to make a living as an author and artist. However, she is too young and innocent to be aware that her beauty, intelligence, and independent spirit are causing every young man she meets to fall in love with her.

In her exaggerated efforts to highlight the virtues of her heroine, Stratton-Porter surrounds Linda with a cast of two-dimensional characters. Linda Strong might almost be an amalgam of all Stratton-Porter’s wishes for her frustrated, thwarted, eccentric teen-aged self. In the fairytale ending, all of the right couples end up together, Linda’s selfish, deceitful sister is sadder, but wiser, Linda’s best friend wins a prestigious prize and the man she loves, the Jap is dead, and Linda’s income is secured. Perhaps, through Linda, Gene’s young self vicariously gets everything she always wanted.