“Don’t you be wasting of me good time in the numbering of me hands,” cried Freckles. “The stringth of me cause will make up for the weakness of me mimbers, and the size of a cowardly thief doesn’t count.”
What better way, I thought, for the first of hopefully many book reviews than to share with you my all-time favorite? Freckles. Dear, dear Freckles and his Angel, who piqued my interest in my Irish heritage and changed the way I write.
Gene Stratton-Porter was a native Hoosier and makes Indiana sound like the promised land. I had never heard of the Limberlost Swamp until I brushed with her writing. I actually read The Girl of the Limberlost first, and Freckles the summer after. Perhaps that contributes, but the book is living and breathing hot, scorching summer. You can almost taste it.
I could rave all day without ever telling you about the story itself. But to avoid that mistake. . .
Freckles, a plucky, red-haired waif who has no name, comes to McLean’s lumber camp badly in need of a job. He has been banished by the new superintendent from a children’s home in Chicago, the only home he has ever known, and is on the run from his first employer, which arrangement turned out very badly for him. Mr. McLean, known to his men as ‘the Boss’, is sympathetic, but doubtful that the one-handed lad of nineteen is capable of doing the job that needs badly done. The two thousand acres of Limberlost swampland are rich with valuable timber, and the trees must be protected from thieves who have sworn to steal them. Freckles persuades the Boss to let him try.
Armed with a revolver and a cudgel to test the wire fence that surrounds the tracts of land, Freckles walks around the whole of them twice a day, watching for thieves and mending the fence when it is needed. At first, he is mortally afraid, for he has lived his entire life in the confines of the city. In the deadness of winter, he makes friends of the birds, which he calls his ‘chickens’. When spring returns to the Limberlost he is no longer fearful of danger lurking in the quiet forest. Instead, he observes the returning life around him with burning curiosity. He finds a beautiful feather and sees a strange black bird in the skies above him. The bird is a species of black vulture known as ‘Pharaoh’s Chickens’, and McLean dubs the new arrivals ‘Freckle’s Chickens’.
Duncan reveals to Freckles that McLean has wagered a thousand dollars on Freckles trustworthiness. If any fresh stump is found in the swamp when the gang arrives to fell the timber, McLean loses his bet. Freckles watches all the more vigilantly for trouble, and it is short in coming. A deserter from the gang comes to his sanctuary in the swamp to bribe him. Black Jack, the notorious thief who is behind McLean’s fears, will pay Freckles five hundred dollars to turn his head the other way and allow a tree to be stolen. Freckles won’t do it. He fights Wessner, wins single-handedly, and drives him away. When the gang comes to remove the tree before it is stolen, Freckles finds the roost of his chickens.
One of the gang tells him of the ‘Bird Woman’, who makes photographic studies of wildlife, and notifies her of the new arrival in the swamp on Freckle’s behalf.
Then an angel comes.
It is the young companion of The Bird Woman, who wandered away from the carriage in quest of a butterfly. After becoming lost in the maze of the swamp she is relieved and delighted to find Freckles, whom she knows of through McLean. But Freckles had no beforehand knowledge of his exquisite caller, who he titles ‘The Swamp Angel’, and is at once taken by blind worship.
Filled with new-found love for The Angel, Freckles engages in a deep and renewed fight with his ignorance of his past. He has always feared that he was the child of criminals who maimed him for life and abandoned him. He believes that he is unfit for The Angel, despite her own proclamation of love for him. McLean loves the heart-hungry boy too; as a son, and has great plans for Freckle’s future – if he can survive the dangers of the swamp and the lurking thieves who want him dead. This revelation brings healing to Freckle’s embittered soul, but it cannot change what he fears was his past, make him worthy of The Swamp Angel, or save his life when he takes her place in the path of a falling tree.
Freckles is an admirable character, despite his bitterness and his downright selfish loss of will to live at the end. He battles his way through treacherous swamps to prove his faithfulness, refuses a substantial bribe in the name of his honor, faces his would-be murders with steadfast courage. That bitterness is his one downfall, and I accept it as his flaw.
Besides the beautiful writing and rich descriptive powers of Stratton-Porter’s style, the characters of Freckles are undying. I particularly like Angel’s father, the Man of Affairs, who may or may not have influenced my own Patrick Byrne. The Bird Woman, of course, was Gene herself, for that was her work, and through the writing she makes us sympathize with Freckles and the Angel over the fate of the swamp.
Something I have brought away from Freckles is his will to work hard. He lacks his right hand, which would be a difficult absence to bear and cope with. But he is determined to be his own man. He longs for love and friends and acceptation, but not necessarily sympathy, and certainly not charity; I gather that he would prefer respect to sympathy. He would give anything to know that his origin is not the base one that he fears, and would die before the Angel would dishonor her own standing by accepting his love and marrying him. Of course, today pedigree has fallen much by the wayside. A hundred years ago it meant everything, however, and Freckles does provide a careful look at the high regard with which it was held.
(There are instances of language in Freckles, which I must forewarn you of. I would like to say something about the matter sometime, but this is not the post; it is already too long.)
There is one particular part that strikes me with irony, and I will leave it at this. After Freckles trounces Wessner and ‘echorts’ him out of his forest room, he sings his little song about the Dutch and the Irish. I side with Freckles on the morality of the matter, but I am much more Dutch than Irish. (The Dutch do take a nasty helping of prejudice in old books.) This scene always leaves me at a loss, albeit a pleasant one, for I am left at least with a good excuse to read the story again.