Saturday, March 27, 2004

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Freckles (1904) by Gene Stratton-Porter is a moral tale combined with adventure and romance. Freckles is an orphan with only one hand. He arrives at the Limberlost swamp in Indiana to search for a job after leaving the Home, an orphanage in Chicago. His honesty and positive attitude earn him a job as the Limberlost guard for the lumber company. There, Freckles proves himself to be intelligent, strong, and diligent.

As Freckles guards the trees, he learns about the plants growing in the Limberlost and he befriends the animals living there. Freckles makes a “room” in the swamp, a closed garden where he spends time and stores his specimen case containing his treasures. One day, a beautiful girl peeks into his “room,” and Freckles falls in love with her. He calls her his “Swamp Angel.” He befriends the Bird Woman, the Angel’s friend, who takes photos of Freckles’s birds, which he calls “chickens.”

Freckles impresses those around him with his work ethic and good nature. His boss, McLean, treats Freckles as if he were his own son. He prepares to send Freckles to school after the timber gang arrives and Freckles’s guard duty ends. Mr. Duncan, who works for the lumber company, and his wife both love the affectionate boy. The Swamp Angel inspires Freckles in new ways, and we learn that he aspires to sing. He has a stunning voice.

Meanwhile, trouble brews for Freckles as a thief named Black Jack plans to steal trees. The pair fight with one another, and Freckles wins twice, but eventually Freckles is overpowered. The Angel saves Freckles as the thieves attempt to steal a valuable tree. Then later, a tree nearly falls on the Angel, and Freckles saves her, but he is severely hurt and hospitalized.

In the hospital, Freckles is dejected, feeling he will never be able to have the thing he truly wants–the Angel. She is of a higher class, and Freckles believes she deserves a better husband, one who is not nameless and missing a hand. Though the Angel tries to convince him that she loves him, Freckles refuses to believe that they can be together. He thinks of how he arrived at the Home, beaten and bloody, with his arm cut off. He wonders what parents could do that to their own son.

The Angel disagrees, telling him that his parents could never have done such things when Freckles has such a good heart. She aims to prove that he was loved and learns that he was the son of a Lord. Freckles’s parents died in a fire trying to save him, and he has a huge inheritance.

The story ends happily with this contrivance of the plot; however, I would have enjoyed it more had Freckles understood his self-worth was determined by himself, not by the discovery of his parents and high-class name.

Related Reviews:
A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

Purchase and read books by Gene Stratton-Porter:

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter


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Friday, March 12, 2004

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) is a lovely tale of a girl named Elnora Comstock. Elnora is a headstrong, intelligent nature-lover. She is 16 years old at the beginning of the story and ages to around 23 by the end. The reader sympathizes for her in her early struggles to pay for school and to forgive her mother as well as in her later struggles in romance.

Elnora lives with her mother Katharine by the Limberlost swamp in Indiana. Her father drowned in the swamp before Elnora was born, and her mother shows her no affection. Katharine Comstock is an outstanding example of selfishness. She has a wicked, acidic tongue and sense of humor. Katharine idolizes her dead husband and blames Elnora for his death. Elnora reminds her mother of her father at times, making Katharine even more aloof from her child. At the same time, Katharine does not want anyone else to love Elnora either, so she jealously guards Elnora from her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Wesley. Maggie and Wesley give Elnora love and treat her with kindness.

Elnora must pay for her schooling, and she succeeds through her sheer determination in the face of adverse circumstances. She learns everything about the Limberlost. Elnora collects moths, butterflies, and Indian relics, and she studies the rare plants that grow there. She excels at playing the violin, like her father. Elnora pays her way through school by selling collections of moths to the Bird Lady. She ends up graduating first in her class.

One climax in the book occurs when Katharine finally realizes that her memory of her husband is false and that she has been needlessly punishing her daughter. Following this realization, Katharine’s transformation is remarkable. She changes from being an evil and misunderstood villainess to become the mother Elnora always dreamed of having. Understanding Katharine’s motivations is one of the highlights of the novel.

The latter part of the story involves Elnora’s attraction to Philip Ammon. Philip shares Elnora's love of nature, but he is engaged to another woman. Elnora is attracted to him, not in a romantic sense at first, but as a kindred friend who understands and shares her love for the environment. When Philip’s fiancĂ©e Edith Carr humiliates him at a ball, he thinks of Elnora in a new light, and he returns to the Limberlost to win her heart. Elnora is cautious because she doesn't know Edith’s side of the story. Through many twists and turns, Elnora and Philip end up together.

My favorite aspect of A Girl of the Limberlost is Porter’s keen understanding of nature. She portrays settings in a way that engrossed me as a reader. In reading this story, I was left with a vivid picture of the Limberlost.

Related Reviews:
Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

Purchase and read books by Gene Stratton-Porter:

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter


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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Armadale (1864–1866) by Wilkie Collins is a Victorian mystery and suspenseful thriller. Armadale is the name of four different men in this story, who are pairs of fathers and sons. This name is the key to their fortunes and is a cause of shame and secrecy. Each of the four Allan Armadales has his own set of motivations that determine the course of novel’s events.

The drama and sensational aspects of the novel are woven together perfectly and kept me on my toes. From the opening death bed confession to a suicide attempt off a ship to a dream which comes true little by little, I was excited by what came next. At times, I knew what to expect, but not when.

One of the main characters, Ozias Midwinter, often works against what he believes to be his fate, but at other times, he is reconciled to what his fate brings him. The young Allan Armadale is a generous and often foolish man who is powerless to persuasion. Along with Ozias, the most compelling character is Lydia Gwilt. Lydia is a heroine and villainess rolled into one. At times I sympathized with her because she is the most intelligent character in the novel, and I wanted to see her succeed. At other times, I hated her, and wanted her to fail. She’s both a criminal and a temptress.

No character in the book is perfect; no one is purely good. Each character’s combination of motivations, secrets, and balance of good and bad is what drives the novel to its final pages. Wilkie Collins was a masterful storyteller, who controlled complicated plots with seeming ease. Armadale is one of his masterpieces. Although, Collins is best known for The Moonstone and The Woman in White, Armadale deserves equal acclaim.

Purchase and read books by Wilkie Collins:

Armadale by Wilkie Collins The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins


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Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Summer by Edith Wharton

Summer by Edith Wharton


Edith Wharton showed such skill in portraying the universal emotions of women. In Summer (1917), the novella counterpart to her winter-themed story Ethan Frome, Wharton tells the story of a young woman named Charity Royall.

Charity came from the mountain. Her birth parents were poor and gave her up for adoption to Mrs. and Mr. Royall, a family in North Dormer, a town in New England. Living with her adoptive parents, Charity is kept in check from her true wants by the confines of her upbringing. She feels trapped in the village and senses she has no prospects. In spite of these constraints, Charity is a thoughtful young woman, with whom readers can identify.

After her adoptive mother dies, Charity is left alone with Mr. Royall. He lusts after Charity and tries entering her bedroom, but she refuses him. Charity gets a job as a librarian to earn a small living of her own. She has little interest in her job, but defends it because it belongs to her.

As the summer goes on, Charity falls for a visitor named Lucius Harney. She holds herself back to prove to herself that she’s not loose and that she is serious unlike other women. Eventually though, she gives in, and she and Lucius secretly meet and have sex. She is thrilled with passion for her new lover. Charity believes Lucius is truly devoted to a life with her and doesn’t think he’s just a man fooling around on his vacation. Unfortunately for Charity, Lucius has taken advantage of her, and he leaves Charity after promising to come back for her. Charity learns he’s engaged to another woman in town, and her happiness recedes with the summer.

Alone and now pregnant, Charity is left with the choice of whether she should have an abortion. She is unsure what she should do with her life. Charity returns to her birthplace in the mountains and sees her birth mother on her deathbed. She realizes that the mountain she looked to as her escape is not a place she wants to remain. Seeing no alternative, Charity agrees to marry Mr. Royall. Although Charity can’t achieve her dreams of a love-filled romance and marriage, she manages to escape life as an impoverished, single mother or having to turn to prostitution.

Charity can’t cling to her dreams. As the seasons change, and summer ebbs away, she has to move on and seek what she can from life. The story is simple, and its themes are still relevant today, a century later. It is understandable why Wharton ranked Summer as one of her favorites among her novels.

Portrait of Edith Wharton, 1905

Edited portrait of Edith Wharton, The World's Work, 1905. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Related Reviews:
The Reef by Edith Wharton
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

Purchase and read books by Edith Wharton:

Summer by Edith Wharton Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton


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Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller (1879) is a short novel about a young American woman traveling in Europe. Daisy is enjoying her new experiences as she travels, and her priorities are her own pleasure and amusement. Unlike those around her, Daisy tells the truth rather than calculating to move up the social ladder.

Frederick Winterbourne meets Daisy in Vevey, Switzerland and is instantly intrigued by her and her fresh nature. He is protective of Daisy and sees that she is breaking unspoken social rules. Frederick thinks that Daisy blunders innocently and without awareness, and it never occurs to him that she is deliberately being rebellious in refusing to conform to the norms of society.

Winterbourne pursues Daisy, but when his aunt refuses to meet her, Daisy realizes that his family does not consider her to be a social equal. Before Winterbourne leaves Vevey for Geneva, he agrees to meet Daisy in Rome later that year.

When he arrives in Rome, Daisy is being gossiped about by those who think she is being too familiar with Italian men. In particular, Daisy is involved with a man named Giovanelli, and she refuses to tell Winterbourne if she is engaged to him or not. Daisy is gradually excluded by other Americans because of her behavior. One night, Winterbourne sees Daisy with Giovanelli at the Colosseum, and he is angry with Giovanelli for taking her there because of the risk of catching Roman fever.

Sadly, soon after, Daisy contracts Roman fever and dies. After her death, Winterbourne belatedly receives a letter from Daisy. In her letter, she explains that she was never engaged and that she remembered their time together in Geneva fondly.

Henry James wrote this novella in third person, leaving the reader without a complete understanding of Daisy. The reader’s view of Daisy is mainly filtered through Winterbourne’s perspective. Is Daisy ignorantly blundering, or is she purposefully striving for freedom?

In spite of seeming to understand Daisy’s letter and her need for respect, Winterbourne returns to his old ways at the story’s end. He is apparently unaffected by Daisy’s presence in his life. Meanwhile, the reader is left wondering whether Winterbourne understood Daisy at all.

Related Review:
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Purchase and read books by Henry James:

Daisy Miller by Henry James The Turn of the Screw by Henry James The Golden Bowl by Henry James The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl (1947) by John Steinbeck weaves a story of good, evil, events, and their consequences. Based in part on a Mexican folk tale, this novella has beauty in its simplicity.

The story is set in La Paz, Mexico, where Kino and his wife Juana have an infant son Coyotito. Kino works to gather pearls from the Gulf of Mexico. Their meager life is challenged when they are shamed by a doctor who refuses to treat their son Coyotito after he is bit by a scorpion.

Wishing and praying for change, Kino finds "The Pearl of the World," a pearl the size of a sea gull’s egg. He sees promises in the pearl. Kino plans to marry Juana in a church, wants to buy a rifle and some new clothes, and aims to send his son to school.

After Kino and Juana find the pearl, the social order of their town transforms. The idyllic setting changes to one filled with mistrust, greed, betrayal, and murder. For instance, once the doctor hears of their wealth, he poisons Coyotito and then deceives Kino and Juana into believing that he cured their son. Coyotito was actually saved by Juana’s quick care.

Kino attempts to sell the pearl, but becomes hardened when he is offered an unfair price. Later, Kino and Juana’s home and most prized possession (their boat) are destroyed by people trying to steal the pearl. The music of the pearl counters the “Song of the Family” in Kino’s ears. As Kino clings to the pearl’s promises, his satisfaction with his humble life falls apart. Juana pleas for Kino to throw the pearl away or destroy it, but Kino refuses. Juana then tries to throw the pearl into the sea on her own, but Kino attacks her, becoming a man who is “half insane and half god.” Later, Kino murders a thief who attempts to steal the pearl. This event leads the family to depart from their home.

On their way to the capital, Kino believes that sheep trackers are on their trail, though it is never clear whether this is the case. Perceiving that they are hunted and tracked like animals, Kino becomes more like an animal himself. He resorts to murder, but ironically his son Coyotito is also killed when mistaken for a coyote. Kino’s choices and insistence on keeping the pearl eventually led him to murder four men and result in the death of Coyotito.

The Pearl is a tragedy. Instead of bringing good fortune to Kino’s family, the pearl was a curse that destroyed their unity and brought evil into their home.

Purchase and read books by John Steinbeck:

The Pearl by John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck East of Eden by John Steinbeck Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck


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