My Favorite Mediocre Book

It seems to be the season for unpopular opinions here in the Eleventh Stack. We are denying the touchstones of our generation, swearing off the big hits, and gearing up to not go see the 50 Shades movie. With that in mind, I figured it was time to share my favorite not-very-good book.

Freckles,* a 1904 classic by Gene Stratton-Porter, tells the story of a plucky, one-handed Irish orphan making a life and a family for himself in the woods of Indiana (the Limberlost) at the turn of the last century. If you think that sounds like a plot worthy of Horatio Alger, you’re pretty much right. As in Alger’s 100-plus novels, our brave hero is a proponent of honest work and clean living, which eventually cause a fortune to fall into his lap. The author achieved commercial success (her novels eventually made her a millionaire), but railed against the literary critics who rejected her popular fiction.

While Horatio Alger dignified his work above pulp fiction with highbrow literary allusions, Stratton-Porter glorifies hers with nature. The woods where Freckles lives and works were right outside her family home, and she was a committed naturalist who went on to publish several nonfiction books on the local species. While the environment is relevant to the story—Freckles works as a guard for a lumber company, protecting part of their territory from poachers—the descriptions of the wetlands seem to interest the author more than her own characters do.

The flow of the story gets interrupted for pages at a time to describe scenes “[that] would have driven a botanist wild with envy.” And yet, as the New York Review of Books points out, “she performs the brilliant feat of fudging that permits the reader to feel ennobled by the natural world while rooting for its extirpation.” The wilderness Freckles loves is actively being destroyed by his allies and mentors, and he is helping them do it.

The writing is, at its best moments, so wildly overblown that it can be hard to take seriously. The dialogue drips with sentimentality and questionable dialects. Freckles falls in love with a girl known for the entirety of the book (and its sequel) as the Swamp Angel. “Me heart’s all me Swamp Angel’s,” he says, “and me love is all hers, and I have her and the swamp so confused in me mind I never can be separating them. When I look at her, I see blue sky, the sun rifting through the leaves and pink and red flowers; and when I look at the Limberlost I see a pink face with blue eyes, gold hair, and red lips.”

The plot hangs on ideas of genetic inheritance that are beyond ridiculous—namely, that the orphan Freckles’s biological family can be identified not only by similar looks but also similar character attributes such as pluck, honesty, capacity for loving, and (even stranger) vocal training. As is said of his gentility, “No one at the [orphans’] Home taught you. Hundreds of men couldn’t be taught, even in a school of etiquette; so it must be instinctive with you. If it is, why, that means that it is born in you, and a direct inheritance from a race of men that have been gentlemen for ages, and couldn’t be anything else.” This also comes with a few uncomfortable moments of ethnic stereotyping, where his traits are as much attributed to his Irishness (he grew up in Chicago) as anything personal or familial.

And yet, I love this book. It may help that I was introduced to it by my mother, who was introduced to it by her mother, when I was much younger and less sarcastic than I am now. It certainly helps that I’m sentimental and respond well to outpourings of emotion. I identify well with the Angel’s proclamation, “I never have had to dream of love. I never have known anything else, in all my life, but to love every one and to have every one love me.” Particularly during the dark of winter, it’s nice to have something overflowing with spring life. And as excessive as the language is, the characters are charming, and the morality is uncomplicated. Spoiler alert—the bad guys are defeated and the good guys are rewarded and get to live happily ever after in a place that’s really pretty. And some days, that’s as much as I need.

-Bonnie T. *There’s only one copy in the library system, but the full text is available for free online through Project Gutenberg.


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3 responses to “My Favorite Mediocre Book

  1. lectorconstans

    Your review reminded me of a quote (probably an Old Saw by now):

    Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
    –Shakespeare, 12th Night

    How often do we read of someone born in poverty( ‘of a low degree’, as the Victorians put it) who rises to fortune and fame? Though in Shakespeare’s time, “born great” probably meant that your father was king.

    Stratton-Porter’s writing reflects the age. Even ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ have what we would consider ‘quaint dialect’).

    She was a remarkable woman. From my short reading (5 minutes), I suspect that there’s a lot of her in ‘Swamp Angel’.

    I enjoy reading your notes on books I’ve never heard of. As they say, so many books, so little time,

  2. Suzi W.

    Well, your review is convincing, so much so that I’m on a waiting list to read it.

  3. Linda

    Having read Freckles myself and also A Girl of the Limberlost I can wholeheartedly second your recommendation. The reader just has to take them as a product of their time period. You have also hit on a valid point that it is not just the books that have the reader clamoring for more that stay in mind long after the book is finished.

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