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A Girl of the Limberlost

A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton-Porter, Wladyslaw T. Benda Childrens' books like A Girl of the Limberlost remind me of the instruction manuals that come with furniture that you have to assemble yourself. They are assembly instructions for morality. Life is so easy, and there are little stick people on the pages to show you how it is all done successfully. I adored Little Women when I was a kid, for example, but in recent years I've tried to re-read it a couple of times, and I can't get past the part where Marmie makes the girls give up their Christmas breakfast so that the starving German children won't die of cold and hunger. It's so simple! If we give up a little of what is ours and have kind of a crappy Christmas but pretend it's fun, our parents (and God, by association) will love us. It's not that I disagree with the message that unselfishness makes us better (and even happier) people, and I know if I ever have a daughter I will read her Little Women. I just think that the delivery is too simplistic to be very honest, and it kind of gives me the creeps. I had that same creepy and confused feeling reading A Girl of the Limberlost. I would not say I'm appalled at anyone who loves this book, and the person who recommended it to me is a dear friend, but I can't let this reading pass without noting how uncomfortable it makes me.

This book was written 100 years ago - about a generation after Little Women. While Little Women is a quintessential example of American morality lessons, A Girl of the Limberlost is American capitalism through and through. The central struggle of the book is a basic Cinderella plot, wherein the beautiful Elnora has been caged in the Limberlost forest by her mother, who became bitter and mean after the death of Elnora's father. They own a huge amount of land and timber (note word choice), where Elnora catches moths and butterflies and communes with nature. Elnora, however, is basically a genius (on top of being the most naturally beautiful girl anyone has met), so she wants to go to high school in the nearby town, and her stingy mother will not buy her the clothes and books necessary to do so. All of this we know within the first few chapters of the book, and it's pretty obvious whose side we're on, right? Gotta go with Cinderella, not the evil mother.

Stratton-Porter makes it very obvious that the reader is intended to see how selfish and unreasonable the mother's argument is for not giving Elnora the fancy clothes she wants (no, sorry, needs), and Elnora is presented as a purely heroic character, without any intention of irony that I could detect. It was very conflicting, then to be 100% on the mother's side of the argument. I'll give you a selection of how the argument is characterized throughout the book to see if you agree. This is from a moment in which Elnora runs in a panic to her friend, the Bird Woman, because her mother didn't buy her a new dress for graduation:

"Elnora," she said, "Forgive me, but tell me truly. Is your mother so extremely poor as to make this necessary?"

"No," answered Elnora. "Next year I am heir to my share of over three hundred acres of land covered with almost as valuable timber as was in the Liberlost. We adjoin it. There could be dozens of oil wells drilled that would yield to us the thousands our neighbors are draining from under us, and the bare land is worth over one hundred dollars an acre for farming. She is not poor, she is - I don't know what she is. A great trouble soured and warped her..."

Kind of creepy, no? If you love your kids, you'll kill the forest. And this "Drill, baby, drill!" theme runs through the whole book. Elnora denudes the Limberlost of moths because she can sell them to pay for school. At the same time, she represents nature within the book because she loves the forest and knows everything about animals and plants. So, we learn, if we really love and understand nature, we use it to get us the stuff we want. I think there's a cartoon version of this story on Fox News starring Sarah Palin. It kind of makes me mad that a tree died to print this book. It was also a reality check for my own behavior (in the opposite way of what was intended) because it always seems vague to me when people talk about the ramifications of our behavior on people 100 years from now. This made it much more real because I kept wanting to get in my time machine (patent pending) and fly back to get this ridiculous girl not to replace the forest with farms and oil wells. I hope no one feels like that about me in 2109.

Aside from my problems with all of the basic messages of the book (and my problem with a side story that makes me very uncomfortable about a very Dickensian street urchin and his family), it had a fairly engaging plot. I'm a sucker for love stories to the point that even if I really dislike everything else, I still want to see the love story play out in a book. This one also had the bonus of every woman in the story learning that if she devoted her entire existence to her husband and kids, she would find true happiness. *shudder*