When I was ten, I read a novel called A Girl of the Limberlost that made a deep impression on me. I assumed that its author, Gene Stratton-Porter, was a man, and gave the matter no further thought. I read the book, written in 1909, at a small New Hampshire girls’ camp—run by an elderly Congregationalist minister and his wife and itself past its prime—curled up on a worn velvet sofa in an outbuilding called the Lodge, whose walls were hung with Indian blankets and sepia photographs of girls in togas doing eurythmic dances in a forest clearing. It was 1944, and civilian America was undergoing a regimen of wartime austerity by which it was never more than mildly discommoded, but that imparted a sort of scratchy gray wool feel to the atmosphere. The lack of gas and the rationing of meat touched us campers—we had to walk the three and a half miles to the lake where we swam, and we ate a lot of creamed codfish—but did not register on us as deprivations.
For a child living in a culture of limited and somewhat monotonous resources, A Girl of the Limberlost—the story of an Indiana girl who starts out in severe material distress and ends up with everything a girl could possibly want—had special resonance. When I reread the book in the 1980s (I found it at a library sale), I felt that I was reentering an imaginative world whose grip on my own imagination had never loosened. The opening scene—Elnora Comstock’s arrival at a small-town high school dressed in rough farm clothes, in mortifying contrast to the “bevy of daintily clad, sweet-smelling things that might have been birds, or flowers, or possibly gaily dressed, happy young girls”—came back to me with the force of a seminal memory.
As the plot unfolded, almost every turn had a familiar ring. When a kindly neighbor named Wesley Stinton and his wife, Margaret, take pity on Elnora and go shopping at the local dry goods store for the clothes that will propel her into the ranks of the daintily clad, I could all but recite their purchases of fabric for “bright and pretty, but simple and plain” school dresses (“four pieces of crisp gingham, a pale blue, a pink, a gray with green stripes and a rich brown and blue plaid”), along with ribbons, belts, a hat, umbrella, shoes, boots, and toiletries. But my greatest shock of recognition was reserved for the final “neat and genteel” purchase of a brown leather lunch box:
Inside was a space for sandwiches, a little porcelain box for cold meat or fried chicken, another for salad, a glass with a lid which screwed on, held by a ring in a corner, for custard or jelly, a flask…
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