Friday, September 11, 2015

Blogging The Limberlost: Things Were Different Back Then

Been waiting for my thoughts on A Girl of the Limberlost, haven't you? Right off the bat, I've been noticing differences between this novel from 1909 and what I see in YA books today.

Environmental Issue

Today books for young readers that have any kind of environmental thread or theme usually involve conservation. The child characters become involved in saving some natural area from evil, or at least uncaring, developers. The characters in Carl Hiaasen's Scat are younger than Elnora Comstock, the protagonist in A Girl of the Limberlost, but they are dealing with a swamp and an oil company trying to steal oil found there. In A Girl of the Limberlost, characters live in the swamp and harvest its plants. Elnora raises money to go to high school by selling plants and moths and caterpillars she's collected. Her mother is berated by a neighbor for not selling trees from her land to get the money to provide for her daughter's education. The mother isn't holding out because she's an early environmentalist. She's obsessed with her long-dead husband, and the land she lives on was his.

I'm only a few chapters in, but we may be talking about humans managing an environment, the way farmers traditionally did. In early twentieth century America, people may not have had any thought that land and what grows on it should be protected. Protected from whom? From what?

Adult Point Of View

In these early chapters, we have some point of view switches, which are certainly common in contemporary YA and children's books. However, in A Girl of the Limberlost, we see a switch from a third-person teen point-of-view character to a third-person adult point-of-view character, that of Elnora's neighbors/protector. We hear from this couple, one or the other of them, about the loss of their own children, explaining their embrace of Elnora. They provide backstory about Elnora's mother. In fact, the switch may occur so the author can get that information out.

The child/YA point of view is basic to contemporary children's and YA fiction. I can't think of any switches similar to the one in Limberlost in any recent book I've read.

Adult Savior

Elnora is surrounded by adults who in this early stage of the book appear to be helping her solve her problems. The kindly neighbors provide school clothes. A teacher who has only just met her provides affordable used books and arranges for her to pay her tuition in installments. An artist miraculously appears to buy things from Elnora, making it possible for Elnora to pay her school costs. Elnora making her own money in this way may be meant to make her appear independent. But it's an adult who makes this action possible.

Adult saviors do appear in contemporary children's/YA fiction, often in the form of a mentor, a teacher, a coach. There are rather a lot of them here.

Trouble With Mom

So far, Elnora's mother is hell on wheels. I don't read a lot of the YA problem novels in which parental issues are a major factor. What little I know of them, parents fail in their duties because of various weaknesses on their part. Though we hear from those neighbors in one of their point of view switches (see above) that Mrs. Comstock is still grieving for her late husband (gone for well over a decade, I believe), the real explanation for her behavior toward her daughter seems to me that she just can't tolerate her child being different from herself.

I think this is very realistic, myself. I don't know why I don't see more of it in contemporary YA.

And Then Some Things Don't Seem To Change

Elnora arrives at school and has your classic school outsider humiliations. She's told by one of her adult saviors that the same thing happened to her when she was at school.

Come on. This has been going on for over a hundred years, and we haven't figured out a way to do something about it? We put a man on the moon a while back, you know.  


Jeannine Atkins said...

I did not know I was waiting for your thoughts on this novel, but my heart quickened at the title and I was not disappointed. My memory of this book is very foggy, and you've made me think it's worth a reread. Though I may like reading your responses more. I've looked at Gene Stratton Porter's books of butterfly photographs with great admiration.

Ms. Yingling said...

One of my teachers was very fond of this book, and even though I adored Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and other books from this time period (or before), I never really took to this one. The grieving, incompetent mother seems plucked right from pages of books today, though. As for children who don't quite fit in, there is no was to "fix" that. I certainly didn't fit in when I was in middle school, but as much trouble as I had with my fellow classmates, I still secretly reveled in the fact that I was different!

Gail Gauthier said...

If I had all the time in the world, I'd read a bunch of children's books from this period...take a class...maybe write a paper.