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  • Gene Stratton-Porter, Author of Classic Children's Novels, Ecologist and Racist
Gene Stratton-Porter, Author of Classic Children's Novels, Ecologist and Racist
Contributor
Written by
Sakki selznick
February 2016
Publishing
Contributor
Written by
Sakki selznick
February 2016
Publishing

Girl's classics again: One of my favorite childhood books is A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter. It's a lovely story, about a young girl being raised in the swamp--wetlands--known as The Limberlost, in Western Indiana. 

Elnora Comstolk is neglected by a grief-crazed mother--her life nearly ruined by her husband's drowning in the Limberlost long ago. But Elnora is determined to go to high school, despite not having the money to pay for it, the clothes to wear to it, or even the lunch to bring to it. 

The Limberlost Swamp

Elnora is guided in her journey by The Bird Woman (based on Stratton-Porter herself.) This is someone who studies the Limberlost and teaches children about the beauty of the swamp. The Bird Woman suggests that Elnora can pay for her books by collecting and preserving moth specimens from the swampland, which Elnora does. Like Emily of New Moon, Elnora is not, then, your typical girl's classic creature who does turns from vivid child to narrowly defined wife and mother. Elnora--and the Bird Woman--both follow non-traditional paths for women of that time, and in fact, Stratton-Porter did the same. When she was unhappy with Hollywood's versions of her books, she formed her own production company and made her own. In the 19-teens.

 

As a teenager, I joyously read my way through Stratton-Porter's cannon, and then, I came up, shocked, at Her Father's Daughter, written in 1921. Stratton-Porter moved to California in the teens. This novel's plot--it's plot, mind you--is that those "dirty Japs" have a secret plan to infiltrate high schools across America with graduate students, so that these evil yellow men can steal the position of Valedictorian from some fine, young, all-American Anglo-Saxon boy. In Father's Daughter's case, this evil guy--named Oka Sayye--goes so far as to try to kill the hero, Donald Whiting, to maintain that primary position. 

Our heroine, Linda Strong, helps Donald build up his ego enough that he is able to beat Oka in academics. 
 
I felt like I would throw up. 
 
And no, reading that book, I can't say, "well, she was a product of her times." Her Father's Daughter is not casually racist, it doesn't mock a houseboy's pigeon English or dismiss an "Oriental" as inscrutable. Her Father's Daughter is, instead, propaganda, dripping with viciousness. 
 
I still love A Girl of the Limberlost, and Freckles, another of her children's classics. But it's harder to read them innocently now. 

 

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