For the book-reading public of 1904, the name Gene Stratton-Porter was as familiar to them as the names Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, and Nora Roberts are to the one of today. In her time, Stratton-Porter, an Indiana native, was a best-selling novelist who later recognized the profit potential of film adaptations and moved to Los Angeles to pursue film treatments of her novels. She was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles in 1924. But one hundred and ten years ago, she had a hugely successful novel called Freckles, about a young man and his growth to maturity in the Indiana forests. The novel has been adapted for the screen four times, the last version being released in 1960.
Geneva Stratton-Porter was born Geneva Grace Stratton near LaGro, Indiana in Wabash County on August 17, 1863. She was the last of twelve children. Her father, a farmer and lay preacher, was fifty and her mother forty-six when she was born. She became fascinated with nature and animals from an early age. She married a druggist named Charles Darwin Porter, and the couple had one child, a daughter named Jeannette Helen Porter.
Charles Porter was a successful pharmacist, and branched out into other lines of business, becoming wealthy. Gene found her own success, first as a wildlife photographer, then as a writer. She was fascinated by the Limberlost swamp region near their town of Geneva, and she spent long hours traipsing through the swamp, creating striking images of wildlife. She first published photos, then composed articles on animals and photography before exploring fiction.
Porter built his wife a handsome cabin near the Limberlost region that is now the Limberlost State Historic Site. When the 13,000 acre swamp was later drained, and the land was altered by ventures in farming and oil exploration, she and her husband moved north, where they built another cabin. This property is now the Cabin at Wildflower Woods State Historic Site near Rome City, Indiana.
Gene’s first book was The Song of the Cardinal, which describes a year in the life of the state bird of Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. But she branched out into fiction with her first novel, Freckles. The book was successful, and she followed it with A Girl of the Limberlost in 1909, The Harvester in 1911, and Laddie: A True Blue Story in 1913. Her books are sentimental, and they often concern noble kinds of people who overcome challenges, often with the help of community. The books openly demonstrate and espouse certain values, such as love of neighbors, hard work, and resourcefulness. Most are set in Indiana or some other Midwestern landscape, although The Keeper of the Bees, which was published posthumously, is set in California.
Freckles was the book that made her a household name. The story concerns a young man known only as Freckles who was raised in a Chicago orphanage. He is missing a hand. He becomes a guard for a timber company in the Limberlost swamp, patrolling the swamp each day to protect the company’s interests from timber thieves. Freckles is at first intimidated by the natural world, having grown up in the urban jungle, but soon comes to love nature and becomes more confident in himself. He is helped along on this journey by a man named McLean, who is part owner of the company and manager of its operations.
I don’t want to say too much about the novel for those who might want to read it themselves, but it’s safe to say there’s a love story, villains, adventure, close brushes with death, and absolute redemption at the end—and Freckles learns the secret of his paternity, which given the romantic conventions of books such as these, is absolutely glorious. The book was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1904 with illustrations by E. Stetson Crawford.
Here’s a link to the Indiana State Museum historic site for Limberlost:
And here’s one for Cabin at Wildflower Woods:
Afterword by Joan Aiken to A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. Signet Classic edition by Penguin Books, New York, 1988.
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Entry on Gene Stratton-Porter by Mary DeJong Obuchowski. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.
Wikipedia entry on Freckles.
Wikipedia entry on Gene Stratton-Porter.
Indiana State Museum sites on Limberlost and Cabin at Wildflower Woods.