Neither my mother nor my father graduated from high school, but they were both big readers, as were my grandparents. We had novels, religious pamphlets, comic books and tons of children's books available to us as children. The book that first transported me to its world was A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton-Porter. I had to look up the author's name because I didn't remember it. But I remember in a deep sensory way the landscape of that novel and, of course, Elnora Comstock. Elnora lives in rural Indiana, but the more specific setting is Limberlost Swamp, an irresistible name for a place if there ever was one. Her mother is cold and unaffectionate, and Elnora spends a lot of time outside in the swamp. Mind you, I have not read this book in 40 years, so I remember the feeling of the book more than the details. Elnora is a loner, not so much by choice but because she lives in an isolated place with a mother who won't-until the end-develop a relationship with her daughter. When Elnora starts going to school in town, she is made fun of because of her country ways, which include her out-of-style clothing. Elnora begins to collect rare moths in the swamp. These are the parts of the book I remember most because of the detail about the moths as well as plants and other animals in the swamp.
In writing this I only now become conscious of the reason this book resonates so deeply-still-with me. I grew up on a farm and attended rural schools until I was in tenth grade. Then I began going to school in town (the big city of Roswell, NM) where other people my age had spent many years making friends. And while no one was mean to me the way young people are to Elnora Comstock, I felt like an outsider. I got up early every morning to feed horses and sheep, the sounds of tractors were familiar to me, I drove 12 miles to school every morning, and my closest friend lives four miles away-a distance I bicycled regularly before I got my driver's license (at 14!). This was not true of any of the people I became friends with in high school.
A Girl of the Limberlost also has a romance at its core, but I don't remember very much about that. I think Elnora finally gets her man, marries, and lives happily ever after. And there is reconciliation with her mother. But it is Elnora's isolation in the swamp with those moths that, in remembering, make me feel right now the way I did then when I read the book (probably in third or fourth grade). In looking up the author, I found that Stratton-Porter was also a naturalist, so it makes sense to me, given my own experience and inclinations as both a reader and a writer, that the descriptions of Elnora in nature are what struck a deep chord with me.
Many years ago (in the 1980s) I taught English for a short time at the Crowden School of Music in Berkeley. One of the students who came the year I began teaching there was an international student from China. She was a magnificent violinist who spoke little English. She was in eighth grade, but her reading level was about third or fourth. I gave her a copy of A Girl of the Limberlost. At the end of the school year, she drew a charcoal sketch of me with colorful moths whirling all around. I just remembered that!