7.10.2013

Currently Reading: Freckles

On the trail the Bird Woman wheeled to McLean with a dumbfounded look.

"God!" muttered he.

At last the Bird Woman spoke.

"Do you think the Angel knew she did that?" she asked softly.

"No," said McLean; "I do not. But the poor boy knew it. Heaven help him!"

The Bird Woman stared across the gently waving swale. "I don't see how I am going to blame her," she said at last. "It's so exactly what I would have done myself."

"Say the remainder," demanded McLean hoarsely. "Do him justice."

"He was born a gentleman," conceded the Bird Woman. "He took no advantage. He never even offered to touch her. Whatever that kiss meant to him, he recognized that it was the loving impulse of a child under stress of strong emotion. He was fine and manly as any man ever could have been."

Author: Gene Stratton-Porter

From Goodreads: In this book a homeless waif finds his deliverance in the primeval Limberlost swamp. Maimed and abandoned as an infant, Freckles seeks a chance to prove his worth. He is given that opportunity as the guard of the precious timber of the Limberlost. In his stewardship of the woods, he finds happiness in the companionship of the birds and other wild creatures and in the love of the beautiful Swamp Angel. This moving story of courage and virtue will warm the hearts of young and old.

Notes: Stratton-Porter was a naturalist and wildlife photographer in the Limberlost area of Indiana, where both this book and its companion novel, Girl of the Limberlost, are set. Her obvious knowledge of and love for the territory and its native creatures give life to these two books, and it seems likely that the unnamed Bird Woman is based to some extent on herself.

I read the later-written, later-set Girl of the Limberlost first, and by my judgment it's a better novel—more cohesive and marginally less sentimental—but I was curious about the characters of Freckles and the Swamp Angel, who make a brief appearance in GotL, so I was thrilled to find this book available on Kindle. Fortunately for me, I can handle sentiment with comparative ease; it's the book's worst failing, on technical grounds at least, but Stratton-Porter's hyperdramatic sensibility is also responsible for some rather beautiful little moments.

The orphaned and handicapped title character, for instance, is friendly with birds and beasts and humans alike, has an exquisite singing voice, and is utterly, lovably heroic. He's perhaps a little too good to be true, but then, this is a romantic story, and a little bit of larger-than-life virtue is called for. To those of us who would rather spend our reading hours with a pure-hearted hero than one of the Byronic or anti-heroic sort, there's not a fault to be found with the gentle, passionate, artistic youngster.

The Angel is cut from the same piece of cloth (which fabric is, in both cases, likely to prove either extremely chafing or extremely warming). Sixteen years old, flawlessly beautiful, and as innocent and sweet as the little birds Freckles feeds, she's also handy with a revolver, cool-headed enough to flirt with a hardened criminal in life-threatening circumstances, and unbeatable at mixing drinks. I'd have envied her to hatred if I hadn't loved her so much; for me, it was just a delight to get to know the motherly society queen Elnora meets in GotL.

Some of the book's ideas and ideals are incomprehensible in today's world, but the depiction of an artistic soul's adoration of natural beauty is timeless. It's this, along with the characters' open-hearted compassion and quickness of love, that make for the best scenes in the novel. Those features, together with the naturalist's descriptions of a historical ecosystem (which is now undergoing partial restoration), make the novel itself worth reading, sentiment and all.

7 comments:

  1. I don't mind sentimental novels. In fact, it's sometimes nice to read a rather happy book that has a predetermined outcome. I agree with you that The Girl of the Limberlost strikes me as a better novel, but this one has its charms. I like that it has a male protagonist for one, thing--that seems a bit rare in sentimental novels. The only thing that really bothered me was the end of Freckles.

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    1. It did have its charms! Freckles is totally delightful as protagonist. And I'm with you on enjoying books with promised and predictable happy endings from time to time.

      There were a few things I didn't like at the end... SPOILERS AHEAD, WOULD-BE READERS BEWARE... and when I say sentimentality, I don't mean so much the promise of the happy ending as the fact that Stratton-Porter seems to frequently design her male characters to be so desperately lovelorn that they'll contract fever and die if they can't have the women they love. I'm afraid I never respected Philip Ammon much after that, though it couldn't destroy my appreciation for Freckles. :)

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    2. More spoilers! Haha. I never made the connection between Freckles and Philip both becoming physically ill of love. Poor guys. I think what really bothered me about Philip's reaction, though, was that it seemed like he didn't trust Elnora. She didn't just run away from home without money or friends or anything. She planned it out. She wanted to be away for a bit and he didn't respect that. (I think it was kind of a weird plan--who really tests their boyfriend's love by disappearing? But still.)

      What bothered me about the end of Freckles, though, is the revelation that he came from an upperclass family. The entire story seemed intent on demonstrating that you could be a good person even if you were an orphan with parents who were apparently criminals. Then Stratton-Porter makes the boy a descendant of Irish nobility. It was like she was saying his refined sensibility had to have been bred in him after all.

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    3. Yeah, Phil could totally have stood to trust Elnora a bit more. At least enough to not get sick over it. But then Stratton-Porter would've had to come up with another reason for Edith to surrender, which would've definitely been a challenge, as girls don't often for less than life-threatening reasons. ;P

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  2. Krysta, this sentiment--inborn nobility--was common in earlier times. There was a belief that nature triumphed over nurture. You'll see a common use of racism, classism, and misogyny in novels (and, unfortunately, real life) as a way of delineating superiority and purity. L.M. Montgomery's novels, for example, are loaded with these views. I hope this comment goes through, a more thorough one didn't.

    --Arabella

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    1. I'm aware of the nature vs. nurture sentiments in older literature. This example just stuck out to me because the characters frequently debate the topic of who Freckles' parents were and though some contend that they must have been good people for him to turn out so nicely, others insist that he can be good regardless--and it seemed to me that the latter view "won", so to speak. So it was unexpected for me to read a book that seemed geared to address the argument, answered that Freckles should not be viewed in light of his ancestry, and then gave him noble parents, anyway. It was like Stratton-Porter wanted to undermine her own argument. Of course, others may read it differently, but my gut reaction at the end was confusion. :)

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  3. Krysta, yes... that was weird, and part of me wishes Freckles had been allowed to go on as James Ross McLean. I found myself pondering it all over afterward, because there were some things about Freckles that would've been to some extent hereditary... his musicality, for instance, and his aesthetic sensibility, and even his personality. It's just that none of those things had necessarily to belong to the ruling class, or even to non-psychotic parents (and a gentlemanly spirit certainly hadn't). And it's unthinkable that any modern author would not have made the point.

    The main hint, I think, that Freckles had at least decent parents was that it mattered so much to him that his mother wasn't the one to disfigure him. It still didn't have to be either psychotic parents or nobility, but obviously Stratton-Porter went for the full-on rainbows and unicorns ending... but the Angel's reasoning is still, at least for the modern reader, quite the uncomfortable twist on an otherwise nice out-of-the-ashes storyline.

    Arabella, true true... makes me wonder what people'll be criticizing nowadays' authors for in a hundred years. ;)

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