Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter

Source of book: Borrowed from my wife

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know.

Reading to Know - Book Club

This month, the selection was A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. Carrie’s review can be found here.

I will admit being heavily prejudiced against this book, not because it is essentially a female oriented book, but because of an early experience with a truly dreadful movie version. (I’m pretty sure it was the 1990 version, but I have no intention of watching enough to confirm it.)

The acting was pretty bad, but what sealed the deal was the violin. I will admit to being a complete snob when it comes to music in the movies. It has always puzzled me that careful attention is paid to detail: clothes, sets, accents, and so much more; but few movies bother to make string instrument playing look realistic. Any movie that does, earns my respect. (A particularly great example of this is the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, in which a country band is portrayed perfectly – including the use of a serpent. I also love how Mr. Collins reminds me of a spider as he dances. Start at 3:00 for this part.)

In the movie of Limberlost, a young lady plays the first movement of Vivaldi’s A Minor violin concerto. The “playing” is so execrable that it does not even attempt to coordinate the bow movement to the notes. Quite simply the worst I have ever seen.

What makes this completely inexcusable is that the A Minor Concerto is one of the most well known student pieces in the repertoire. I learned it at age nine or ten, and performed it a wedding or two. I really loved it, and did my best to make it sing. But I am hardly unique. Just about any intermediate violin student in the last, say, 300 years, has learned this piece. Whoever produced this movie could have called up any violin teacher in the area and found someone who could competently “string synch” this piece. Instead, they had someone play whole notes and overdubbed. How stupid did this person think the audience was?

A quick YouTube search turns up several dozen performances by young people of various skill levels. I love this version:

Okay, maybe I should say something about the book. I would have skipped it except that my wife encouraged me to go ahead and read it. It was, in fact, worth reading, despite a few moments of awkward, “this sure seems dated” thoughts.

The general plot is in the vein of Horatio Alger stories: a young girl overcomes adversity to achieve success, and eventually love.

With that said, there were some things I liked and some things I disliked. First of all, I found Elnora and her mother to be interesting characters. Elnora is an abused and unloved child, but is strong in an unstereotypical way. In some ways, it is easier to imagine her as a boy, because she channels her inner pain into motivation and anger rather than passiveness and hurt. This would, in my opinion, tend to be a more typically male reaction, although I can think of a couple of extraordinarily strong women that I know that might have the same approach. Were I in Elnora’s position, however, I would never have waited around long enough for my mother to come around. I would have been long gone with no forwarding address.

In contrast, Elnora’s mother, Kate, is interesting as a bitter woman, who is soured rather than mellowed by life’s hardship. She seemed initially to be a fairly realistic portrayal, but I didn’t quite buy into her transformation. From a man’s point of view, it seems odd that she could hate Elnora right up until she learned that her late husband had been unfaithful, and then switch to loving Elnora. To me, the fact of the affair seems irrelevant to the love for a child, either one way or the other. Perhaps a woman might have a different opinion. Perhaps it might feel differently to a man regarding a wife who died in childbirth. I can’t entirely make up my mind about it, but I did enjoy Kate as a character.

I also liked the portrayals of Wesley Sinton (the male half of the kind hearted neighbor couple) and Hart Henderson (who seems to be someone out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.)

In general, I found the book to be a bit “feminist” in its worldview. I mean this in the best possible way. Elnora doesn’t wait around for a man to rescue her. She earns her education by excruciatingly hard work and her own wits. She earns the respect of her peers, not by manipulation, but by straightforward self-confidence and honesty. While she is assisted by others, she takes pride in her independence, and takes full responsibility for herself. In many ways, she is a thoroughly admirable character – much more so than the average heroine from her time – or even our modern times.

I also liked that Elnora refused to take Phillip until the right time. Although I’m not sure it was realistic for her to wait until Edith admitted defeat (such as Edith rarely do), I loved that she would not sell herself cheaply. She knew her own worth, and was wise enough to know that unless she was desired for her own sake, to the exclusion of all others, she would not be happy with her spouse. I admire women like that (and married one), and hope that my daughters will have the strength of character to do the same. 

The author herself was quite knowledgeable about moths and butterflies (and other creatures), which play a substantial part in the plot. While I am not at her level, I did enjoy the detailed descriptions of moths emerging from cocoons, for example.

On the other hand, the author assumes that the reader is familiar with characters from her other books. “Freckles,” for example, has his own book, and the reader is simply assumed to know who he is. One wishes that the author had devoted a paragraph or so to introduce him.

I also did find the moralizing to be a bit heavy-handed. The book is a product of its time (1912), and must be evaluated in that light. In general, much of the literature of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, particularly that directed at children and young people, tended to preach a bit.

I absolutely could not fathom a character like Edith Carr ever redeeming herself. Perhaps I am a cynical divorce attorney, but my experience would indicate that she would remain embittered, and proceed to make her future husband pay for all her disappointment in losing Phillip. On the plus side, she seems destined to keep a lawyer or two employed. But the templates of the era would graciously allow Edith to grow and change, and thus make amends for her prior bad behavior.

As a final note, I would mention my mixed feelings regarding the use of the violin as a plot device. On the one hand, the author at least gives lip service to the many hundreds of hours necessary to master the instrument. On the other, she falls prey to the popular misconception of the musical savant, who masters the technique easily and early. Violin, and indeed all instruments, are difficult to play well. Strings in particular are unforgiving for the first few years. Even those of us who have enough talent to play professionally have devoted hours and hours, day after day, week after week, and year after year, to learn our craft. One in a million musicians, perhaps, is a Mozart: able to attain proficiency with a minimum of seeming effort. The rest of us have bought our skill with our time, our sweat, and our tears. If a musician ever tells you that he or she hasn’t hated the instrument at some point, you are probably being sold the Brooklyn Bridge. I think this particular lie is a disservice to aspiring musicians. If you want to master music, you will cry at some point. You will curse the day you picked it up. However, if you give it your time, sweat, and passion, it will eventually unfold its rewards.

Anyway, Limberlost is a worthwhile book, and one I will encourage my children to read as they get older.


  1. I have an ancient copy of this book--it's an odd, but wonderful tale! :-)

  2. I DID like the fact that Elnora didn't accept Phillip until the right time. That's about the point when I started actually liking the book. :)

    Interesting to hear your thoughts and yes, you are a music snob. So's my husband! And I'm not going to bother watching the clips. I've heard him rant about the same things before. (Mostly as relates to pianists on film. ;)

  3. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, especially about the music. I read Freckles this year since I read Limberlost just a few years ago. I like Limberlost much better than Freckles. I think it's more believable, if that's possible.

  4. I had thought about trying to see if I could find the movie. Maybe I'd better not bother. :-)

    I agree about Edith being not likely to change. I liked the fact, too, that Elnora waited before accepting Phillip -- I had forgotten to mention that in my review.

    1. I can't think of a single good thing to say about the movie. Well, I don't think it involved vampires or nudity, so there is that...

  5. Your rabbit trail regarding the violin made me smile--the same thing drives my son crazy as well. As far as the book goes, I have to agree with you that I'm not sure I would still have been around for Kate's amazing transformation. I know I should be forgiving and extend grace, but my gut-deep thought is "too little too late." I found your contrast between the typical male and female responses interesting (as a woman I'm sad to say passiveness and hurt ring true to me, although I also have a strong flight response).

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts - I hadn't thought about violin that way. I did seem to me to be odd that she all of a sudden was so rapturiously entranced with the instrument and then a prodigy. That was a bit much. : )

    And thanks for the warning on the movie!