I was inspired to pick up Gene Stratton-Porter’s Freckles because A Girl of the Limberlost is this month’s Reading to Know Bookclub selection, but since I read it (and loved it!) several years ago, I thought I’d pick up the book that precedes it chronologically and find out about this Freckles to whom Elnora Comstock owes so much in her story. I thought I had read Freckles as a child, but after reading it I have no memory of it whatsoever, so I’m going to blame that feeling on a bookloving cousin who cites it as one of her favorite books of all time. 🙂
Freckles is the story of a young man who turns up in the Limberlost Swamp of Indiana, looking for employment in the Grand Rapids Lumber Company camp that is logging there. This young man who is Irish by his appearance and the lilt of his voice, homeless and without even so much as a name to identify him, and missing a hand, is also desperate for work. The boss hires him on faith to guard the swamp since it is home to some valuable trees (birdseye maples). The young man is given the name Freckles because of his red, freckled skin, and he soon proves his mettle and endears himself to the manager and the boss. The plot involves some swamp robbers who are determined to get the prized maples from the swamp. It also involves a very idealistic, youthful romance between Freckles and a young beauty he calls the Swamp Angel. All of this is couched in Freckles’ newly-birthed love for nature and the swamp. In fact, it is this love for the flora and fauna of the Limberlost that helps him become at home in the Limberlost and brings the Swamp Angel to him. There’s an exciting climax to this story and a rather protracted ending which involves a promise from the Swamp Angel’s father that she and Freckles will one day be together. Inherent in all this is the idea that Freckles must be of noble, “worthy” birth because of his own loyal heart and character. It would be impossible for him to be born of ne’er-do-wells, as he supposes he must be thanks to his early years in an orphanage and the mysterious loss of his hand. Of course, the Swamp Angel solves the mystery of his birth and confirms that yes, as his character indicates, he is indeed the shining son of an aristocratic Irish family.
Something in me rebelled against this book a bit as I was reading it. First, I wasn’t all that crazy about Freckles’ youthful infatuation with the Swamp Angel, though I suspect that this has more to do with my own (ahem) mature years than anything. I’m just not a fan of romance, even clean, idealistic, sappy romance. The other thing that stuck in my craw a bit was the whole idea that Freckles must not be of common birth. In my mind, it would be far more of a triumph if his parents had wilfully abandoned him and he rose above it. I thought there were some elements of his character and the plot that were undeveloped, too. Specifically, he has a beautiful singing voice, but unlike in A Girl of the Limberlost (Elnora plays the violin), we don’t really see the development of that that plot thread. Still, though, there is much to recommend this book: Freckles is the epitome of bravery and heroic devotion to duty, and his love for the Swamp Angel (and hers for him) is above reproach, if rather sappy. I think the thing that turned the tide of my opinion for this book instead of against it is this quote, attributed to Albert Einstein (thanks, Carrie):
Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.
I was constantly considering this book in light of modern sensibilities, which is a mistake. Instead of wondering whether or not a modern audience would find anything appealing in such an idealistic (although really not exactly saccharine) story, maybe I should instead think of Freckles as a great model for modern young people. I’d certainly be thrilled if one day my own girls have boyfriends (suitors?) as noble as Freckles. 😉 Taking that train of thought just a bit further, I really think reading old fashioned fiction is what developed my sensibilities about the type of man I’d date and eventually marry. While I certainly give God all the credit for bringing Steady Eddie and me together to begin with, I am thankful that I had an ideal in mind long beforehand. My reading definitely shaped that, and I think what stood me in good stead can certainly continue to do so for others.
Bottom line? I’m really glad I read this one, though I wish I had read it immediately before or after I read A Girl of the Limberlost. I really would like to “see” Freckles as an adult, with a wife and a family and a string of worldly success to further commend his character, as he appears in A Girl of the Limberlost. Of the two, A Girl of the Limberlost is definitely my favorite, but I really think that they should be enjoyed together in quick succession. (Doubleday, 1904)