The Literacy Review Team is a group of self-proclaimed bibliophiles who regularly meet to discuss books which have been proposed as additions to our Liberty Great-Books List. When evaluating works of fiction, the LRT uses a loose rubric which focuses on overarching questions like: Does the story have lasting value? Do we want our students to live the life of the main character(s) in the book? Does it give birth to ongoing conversations about what is beautiful, good, true, and perfect? Is there a clear sense of good vs. evil? Furthermore, the complexity of language, sentence structure, vocabulary, literary elements, and any overlapping Core Knowledge content is considered. Each book is evaluated by three or more members and discussed in depth before a final decision is made. This past year, six new titles were added to the list.
It was my great delight to be added to this group just last year. In my excitement, I proposed three books, which I have read numerous times (one additional criteria for evaluating a book is its value in re-reading) and thought deserved consideration for adding to our list. While I love all three books, the one I was most excited about proposing was, A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. I can’t remember when I first read this novel—it was likely sometime in my early teenage years—but it is one I have come back to, as an old friend, many times. Gratefully, my fellow book lovers agreed, and it is one of the new titles on the Liberty Great Books List.
An American author, Porter was born in Indiana in the late 1800s. Although her given name was Geneva, she shortened it to Gene, confusing many who mistake her for a male author. She was a naturalist who fought to preserve the Limberlost swamp where two of her novels, Laddie and A Girl of the Limberlost, are set. Her descriptions of the flora and fauna of the swamp—especially the moths and butterflies which Elnora Comstock (the heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost) found and preserved—transport you to an altogether different time and place. One-hundred forty-eight acres of the Limberlost Swamp has been designated as the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site, inviting in thousands of visitors each year.
Looking at the story itself, Elnora Comstock is a young lady whose sole desire is to attend formal school. Her father has died, and her mother has succumbed to a bitterness which has robbed her of any sense of joy or wonder despite Elnora’s cheerful countenance and conduct. Elnora, much like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne in Anne of Green Gables, proves her mettle by finding a way to make her dream become a reality: she sells her prized butterfly collection in order to purchase books and clothes to attend school. The novel beautifully weaves together elements of nature and humanity as it tells the tale of the young heroine and the many kind and generous friends she meets along the way.
Though her works are often criticized as being saccharine and too good to be true, Porter argued, “To my way of thinking and working the greatest service a piece of fiction can do any reader is to leave him with a higher ideal of life than he had when he began. If in one small degree it shows him where he can be a gentler, saner, cleaner, kindlier man, it is a wonder-working book. If it opens his eyes to one beauty in nature he never saw for himself, and leads him one step toward the God of the Universe, it is a beneficial book, for one step into the miracles of nature leads to that long walk, the glories of which so strengthen even a boy who thinks he is dying, that he faces his struggle like a gladiator.” *
For fear of giving too much of the story’s goodness away, I will stop here with a simple imperative: Read it for yourself. Better yet, read it with your child and share in the beauty of the Limberlost.
* Excerpt from: “Gene Stratton-Porter: A Little Story of Her Life and Work” New York; Charles Scribners Sons, 1916.