Books Your Kid Should Read

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." - Jorge Luis Borges

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24 September 2008
By Gene Stratton-Porter
Illus. Gene Stratton-Porter

I inherited my copy of Freckles from my mom, who had supplemented the author's illustrations with a few of her own in the margins (really good ones, actually; she's quite the illustrator). I think she inherited the book from her mom - at any rate, the copy I have is quite old, from when the book was first published. I think I was nine or ten when I read it for the first time, and it immediately became one of my favorites. The writing style is unabashedly sentimental, full of heightened emotional reactions to the events that unfold. It's not a style that would be at all popular nowadays, but certain bookish pre-adolescents will eat it up. (And actually, I still enjoy the hell out of it.) The events take place in turn of the century Indiana, largely at a lumber camp preparing to take out some high value trees (oaks and other hardwoods) from a big swath of old-growth forest. Freckles, the title character, shows up at the camp one day looking for work. He's a half grown orphan, missing one hand, who knows nothing about his heritage and has a lot to prove. Since he obviously can't work at the camp itself, the manager, a Scot with a soft heart, takes a chance on giving him a job as Limberlost guard - the person responsible for watching over the parts of the forest that the camp hasn't yet begun to work. Freckles, urban to his core, has an uphill battle to navigate the raw nature of the Limberlost trail, but in the course of doing so he develops a deep interest in and love of nature, meets the love of his life, and ultimately discovers his roots. The story is steeped in naturalist's lore (the author was herself a noted naturalist and all-around interesting character) and while the environmental politics of the story are problematic by contemporary standards, the book also imparts a love of nature and a conservationist perspective that balances out the lumbercamp setting. It's also an excellent look back into midwest America at the turn of the twentieth century, with its blend of immigrant cultures, the deep contrasts between urban and rural life, and engaging characters from all social strata and both genders. Try it for free at Project Gutenberg.