Sunday, January 27, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter -- Young Adult Classic (1904)
illustrated by Ruth Ives

Freckles, scrawny, redhaired, freckled, orphaned (sound familiar?) and missing a hand longs for a place to belong in this world. He's run away from a cruel apprenticeship to the swamp known as the Limberlost in central Indiana searching for work. McLean, the owner of a lumber company, sees potential in the young man and hires Freckles to guard the Limberlost against would-be thieves and dangerous critters. Freckles soon endears himself to the head teamster Duncan and family, but is unsure of McLean's feelings at first. When he learns of a wager against him, he vows to protect the Limberlost with every breath. Freckles comes to love the Limberlost, especially the birds which he tames. He also falls in love with the Angel, a teenage girl from town who visits the swamp with Bird Woman, a wildlife photographer. Freckles thinks he needs to protect Angel but soon learns she can hold her own. There may even come a time or two when Angel has to protect Freckles when some wicked villains and a terrible accident seem to be the end of Freckles. Unfortunately for Freckles, though he is physically strong and brave, he is still an unknown orphan and therefore, unworthy of a girl like Angel. Angel may have other ideas and so might McLean. I chose this book as my first pick in the pre-1960 Children's Classics Challenge. I've had it for years but never read it. I didn't like to read about boys. This story qualifies more as a young adult novel since Freckles is 20 and Angel is about 16. The story starts off very slowly with absolutely no plot except the internal fears of Freckles, but once the villains and the ladies are introduced, the story picks up and I had a hard time putting it down. The plot is somewhat predictable and follows a lot of the conventions of late-Victorian children's book plots but in many ways it is different. The primary character in the story is the Limberlost. All the flora and fauna in this amazing ecosystem are described in exquisite detail. My heart broke each time they mentioned cutting down the trees for I could not bear to see the habitat of so many rare plants and animals destroyed. There's somewhat of an environmental message in the story. Freckles comes to care for animals dearly and the Limberlost becomes his home, yet he's eager to please McLean and doesn't seem too bothered by the fact that cutting down trees will scare his "chickens" as he calls the wild birds who flock to him. He has no problems shooting an otter just for the fur, either. I doubt that people at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century had ever heard the word ecosystem or really understood extinction or maybe they didn't care. The author seems to care yet she pretty much drops the message in favor of advancing the romantic plot and the mystery of Freckles' past. I cared about Freckles, but I found him a bit too noble to be an appealing hero. I loved Bird Woman and Angel. I love reading about strong women from that time period and I was fascinated by Bird Woman and wanted to know more about her. If you like Anne of Green Gables, Secret Garden and Little Lord Fonterloy, you will probably enjoy this book though it doesn't quite captivate young girls in the same way. It might be a good book to introduce boys to a classic canon of comparable novels. 
A note of the Junior Deluxe Illustrated Classics edition: The illustrations are dreadful. Freckles is depicted as far older and more rugged than he's described in the book and the dull colors do not fully depict the Limberlost as a magical, amazing place.

The Jumping-Off Place by Marion Hurd McNeely --Children's Classic (1929)

This 1929 Newbery Honor (runner-up) was my second pick for the challenge. This book follows the story of Becky (17), Dick (15), Phil (10) and Joan (8) Linville as they leave behind their home in Platteville, Wisconsin to homestead out in South Dakota in 1910. Their beloved Uncle Jim squatted the claim last fall, before his untimely death, and the children are determined to live out Uncle Jim's dream for him. Though he laid out detailed instructions for the children, homesteading is far more difficult than any of the Linvilles ever anticipated. First there's a family of ornery, evil squatters living on the Linville land who will stop at nothing to drive the Linvilles out. Then there's drought, blizzards, death and near starvation to contend with. Through it all, the Linvilles are determined to go on even when life seems bleak and miserable. They discover that that prairie is not so isolated as they thought and discover their place in the community. It focuses on the struggle of these four children to get along and do what they need to do to survive and the bond they form with other homesteaders. This new edition published by the South Dakota State Historical Society in 2008 features the original wood cut illustrations, an afterward about the author and a glossary of period words used in the book. I really liked this little book. I ate up everything about pioneers when I was growing up and can't believe I missed this one! Some of the plot elements felt very cliched but actually, this book was published before the Little House series and all the other pioneer novels I read as a kid! The story is infused with local color (quirky homesteaders down on their luck), descriptive settings and well-drawn characters. The descriptions of South Dakota are lovely and detailed enough to feel like you are right there with the Linvilles seeing everything through their eyes. By the end of the book, prairie fever might catch hold of an unsuspecting reader. (Not I, I would have run home right away!) The children were all very realistic and fought like normal siblings. I liked seeing them struggle to get along and mature. The plot is paced nicely to keep the reader interested in learning what happens to the Linvilles. This book is truly a hidden treasure and it's unfortunate the author's life was tragically cut short or I am sure she would have entered the canon of classic children's literature. This is a great book for Little House fans and lovers of pioneer novels from age 8+.

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