It was 1965, I was eight years old, my parents were divorcing and I was staying at my father’s house. His mother, my Nonna, was very unhappy about the divorce and let her displeasure be known in bursts of loud angry Italian.
Trying to stay out of the way of the fracas, I used to sit and read under a massive oak library desk. One day, having read all of the books I’d brought with me, I prowled through the old hardbacks stacked on the desk’s low shelves and found Gene Stratton-Porter’s “A Girl of the Limberlost.”
I was enchanted.
The book had an illustration stamped right into the hardcover, something I’d never seen before, and it had a frontispiece, a lovely pen and ink drawing of Elnora Comstock, the heroine of the tale. The pages were brittle and yellowed with age; the publishing date was 1909–even older than my Nonna. Perhaps, the oldest book I’d ever handled.
And it was a “grown-up” book, packed with dense writing and very few pictures. The chapter headings and a lot of the language sounded old-fashioned and I encountered many words I didn’t know and phrases that stumped me.
Elnora “walked a few rods” to meet a neighbor. She shared “frost-bitten paw-paws” with her school friends. She swept out the cabin with a twig broom and picked and stacked pea vines before walking three miles to school, carefully skirting the swamp where her father had drowned during her birth.
These exotic details and dozens more made the book utterly fascinating. Even more morbidly fascinating was the sad fact that her mother resented her, blaming her for her father’s death. She did not show Elnora any affection at all, a family dynamic far removed from the usually happy families populating other books I’d read. I pored over that book, reading and re-reading slowly, trying to understand the convoluted plot twists and the incomprehensible (to an eight-year old) behavior of the characters.
I cheered for Elnora as she made her way in the world, selling moths to collectors to pay for her books and clothing and tuition, meeting life head-on with honesty, hard work and determination.
Eventually, Elnora and her mother reconcile, there is a love interest and everyone gains self-knowledge and happiness.
Puzzling over that book kept me occupied and out of the way of the family drama that summer, and I kept re-reading it through the years, discovering more nuance as I matured and my understanding of the world increased.
The plot is often melodramatic and a bit silly, but the characters are vibrant and complex and the story has aged well–it is still in print. I think of it now as a story of strong women making their own way, living off the land and meeting life’s challenges head-on with grace and integrity, but I also remember it as a magical fairy tale, full of wonders and mysteries that confused and amazed me.
I am still always comforted when I pick it up and lose myself once again in the great Limberlost swamp. I still delight in the breathtaking beauty of the moths Elnora gathers and the evocative descriptions of the Indiana wilderness.