My rating: It’s complicated.
10/10 for childhood nostalgia and deeply sentimental romance of the boy-girl love affair; about a 2/10 for its cringe-worthy aspects in regards to class distinctions and the strong dependence by the author on the idea that “good birth” and “aristocratic heritage” trumps environment, upbringing, natural intelligence and aspects of genuine personal integrity; another 10/10 for its lovely descriptions of the flora and fauna of the swamp, and for the sharp-shooting, utterly fearless female characters the “Bird Woman” and the “Swamp Angel”; these women aren’t afraid to go about alone, get dirty, pursue their personal interests with complete competence, are respected and admired by everyone they meet – including the scruffiest of the “bad guys” – and at the end of the day go home to a hot bath and a complete change of attire to become “dainty beauties”. Oh, golly, I want to be them! With an ugly-handsome, physically-perfect-yet-interestingly-maimed, sterling-natured, completely devoted lover (such as our titular Freckles) on a silken leading string. Sigh…
Where was I? Oh, yes. Rating. Decisions, decisions…
I’d better give it something fairly high, because I do still love this book, despite the squeamishness it stirs within me when I think about it too hard. Here we are, then: 7.5/10.
Time travelling, in several aspects, this reading experience was.
On a personal level, I first read this book back when I was just 11 or 12, and periodically in the years since, and a good percentage of my affection for it is pure nostalgia. That and the fact that the hero and heroine are so darned adorable, and their love story, coming to a climax with the hero being gravely wounded rescuing the heroine from an unpleasantly dramatic death, is of the sort to cause serious heart throbbing in a susceptible young reader.
On a historical level, this is very decidedly a book which deserves the label “period piece.” It is very much a product of its era, and many of the attitudes and assumptions Gene Stratton-Porter captures and espouses so strongly are quite distasteful to this modern day reader, and though I still feel the appeal of the fairy tale nature of the story and the complete and utter good-ness of its main characters, I can only hold on to that affection by viewing it forgivingly through my rose-tinted “era appropriate” lenses. (Handy categorization, that!)
Oh, golly. Look at the time! Must condense and get on with this. Luckily the World Wide Web is bursting with reviews on this one, if any of you are keen to investigate further. Here’s the barest outline.
Way back at the turn of the 19th Century, Indiana’s 13,000 acre Limberlost Swamp (a real place) was a deeply mysterious, untouched-by-man enclave of flora and fauna. Including some exceedingly valuable trees, both from the everyday “lumbering” aspect and for the incredible value of occasional ancient, huge, furniture-making stand-alone hardwood trees, such as birds-eye maple, black walnut, and golden oak. A timber lease was a valuable business enterprise, and forest guards were routinely employed to patrol the borders of the leases to avoid trespassing and theft of the most valuable of the trees. (A genuine occurrence, which is still common today.)
Our hero, the teenage “Freckles,” brought up in an orphanage from babyhood, is employed as a timber guard by a wealthy timber boss, who looks past Freckles’ shabby clothes and missing hand (cut off in unknown circumstances just before his appearance on the orphanage steps) to his sterling heart within and falls in paternalistic love with the boy at first sight. Freckles makes a success of his timber patrols, pluckily routing the Big Bad Timber Thieves with his cudgel and revolver, and pausing occasionally in his tireless rounds to commune with the flowers and make friends with the little forest animals.
Freckles falls in love with a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl who regularly accompanies an older woman friend into the swamp, the photographer and naturalist known only as the “Bird Woman.” Many adventures ensue, with encounters with various wild creatures and vanquishing timber thieves, etcetera. The “Swamp Angel,” as Freckles names the lovely girl (we never do find out her real name), returns his love, though he doesn’t realize it until he saves her from being squashed by a falling tree and sustains horrible injuries himself. Swamp Angel rallies her wealthy father to transport Freckles to the best hospital in Chicago, where he is patched together physically, though he threatens to expire because he is so depressed that he will never be able to speak his love to Angel because he is merely a nameless Irish orphan who could not seek to raise his eyes to a child of wealth and good breeding.
Angel trots off to discover Freckles’ heritage, miraculously does so, and Freckles rallies and the birds all sing in celebration (okay, I added that last bit in, but you get the idea), and manly and womanly tears are shed in great abundance (that bit is in the book – they do all cry a lot, men and women both. And people faint fairly frequently, come to think of it…) and everything ends gloriously happily.
That’s pretty well it. Drama, tears, adventures, love at first sight, bad guys, cute forest creatures, pretty flowers, more drama, more tears, happy ending.
Please excuse my flippant tone this morning. This thing really is a sentimental, highly clichéd, occasionally cringe-making bit of romance literature, and though I love it I also feel a bit ashamed of the bad bits, such as the snobbishness of the author regarding class distinctions, and the complete acceptance of it being perfectly all right to raze and drain a unique natural forest while blithering on about how lovely it all is and oh, well, too bad it’s doomed but we do need some nice veneers for our bedroom furniture, and some more acres to grow corn and pasture our mules, and at least we have some specimens of pressed flowers, dead moths, animal skins and photographs to remember it by.
But there is some lovely writing, and it is a rather sweet love story, and the Ruth Ives illustrations in my childhood edition are rather adorable. The author’s love of nature does shine through, though she seems to have no qualms about contemplating the destruction of the Limberlost to the greater profit of the timber companies. Because to be good and rich is an admirable thing, as her wide-eyed, obviously approving descriptions of the wealth of Angel’s family makes very clear.
Yes, I guess I am a bit conflicted.
This book was followed by another much better known, A Girl of the Limberlost, in 1909, which I am halfway through at this point. It’s an interesting read, and I’m just as conflicted by it as I am by Freckles.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Gene Stratton-Porter and her fictional characters very soon.