Gene Stratton-Porter and me, At The Foot of the Rainbow

In the same year (1907), Gene Stratton-Porter published a romance, the one I’ll discuss in a bit, and the first of her “pure” nature books, What I Have Done With Birds.  This was the start of splitting out her nature writing from her romantic novels by publishing them in alternating years.  The fact that she talked publishers into doing this remains a topic of discussion in many biographical essays about her.

But right now, I’ll just save that for another day and get back to At The Foot of the Rainbow.  This is a slightly obscure early book of hers, before her more famous works which primarily featured heroines rather than heroes.

It’s about two lifelong friends and the woman between them, but it’s not quite the usual love triangle.  It is weirdly manospherian, with the husband of the wife being a chronic drunkard who loves to party and not work very hard supporting his wife (who nevertheless continues getting pregnant with his ultimately stillborn children through the years) and the husband’s childhood friend being an orbiter, always helping out and making sure the wife is taken care of.

The husband is straight up Bros before Brunhildes, with a couple major subplots demonstrating his concern about impressing random men rather than tending to his (at one point quite) sick wife.  It’s a short read, it ends mostly happily (childhood friend gets to marry the wife after all, while she’s still young enough to have some live babies with him–this is stated outright as pretty likely), but it was a little weird to run into some of those tropes in a book a hundred plus years old.  I guess more fodder for the ever more demonstrable claim that the manosphere offers nothing new regarding insights into human nature except a hilariously foreshortened jargon to describe old patterns.

But moving away from that aspect of things, the book is notable for some details Porter moved away from as her writing developed and matured.  She writes the two friends (Danny the orbiter and Jimmy the husband) and the wife (Mary) as speaking with very heavy Irish accents.  A good comparison is what Margaret Mitchell did with Prissy’s dialogue in particular in Gone With the Wind.  As ever with Porter, though, the goal was authenticity.  She wanted to represent the speech purely as she could.  She moved away from this in later novels, toning it down.  There was something of a craze for “authentic” regional work in heavy dialect until the 1910s or so.  I remember growing up with the impression that it was only black dialects that this authenticity craze covered, but that isn’t the case.

This short novel, more a novella, is also the only time Gene Stratton-Porter spent a lot of time on male friendship.  Subsequent novels don’t feature two adult men in friendship over the years the same way.  She does write some novels with heroes, but they never have close male friends ever again.

I should perhaps have done this from the beginning with discussing her work, but here is an excerpt of the nature writing in this little tale of male friendship.  It’s early on, when the two are hunting muskrats to skin and sell.

Dannie’s gaze followed Jimmy’s retreating figure until he climbed the bank, and was lost in the woods, and the light in his eyes was the light of love. He glanced at the sky, and hurried down the river. First across to Jimmy’s side to gather his rats and reset his traps, then to his own. But luck seemed to have turned, for all the rest of Dannie’s were full, and all of Jimmy’s were empty. But as he was gone, it was not necessary for Dannie to slip across and fill them, as was his custom when they worked together. He would divide the rats at skinning time, so that Jimmy would have just twice as many as he, because Jimmy had a wife to support. The last trap of the line lay a little below the curve of Horseshoe Bend, and there Dannie twisted the tops of the bags together, climbed the bank, and struck across Rainbow Bottom. He settled his load to his shoulders, and glanced ahead to choose the shortest route. He stopped suddenly with a quick intake of breath.

“God!” he cried reverently. “Hoo beautifu’ are Thy works.”

The ice-covered Wabash circled Rainbow Bottom like a broad white frame, and inside it was a perfect picture wrought in crystal white and snow shadows. The blanket on the earth lay smoothly in even places, rose with knolls, fell with valleys, curved over prostrate logs, heaped in mounds where bushes grew thickly, and piled high in drifts where the wind blew free. In the shelter of the bottom the wind had not stripped the trees of their loads as it had those along the river. The willows, maples, and soft woods bent almost to earth with their shining burden; but the stout, stiffly upstanding trees, the oaks, elms, and cottonwoods defied the elements to bow their proud heads. While the three mighty trunks of the great sycamore in the middle looked white as the snow, and dwarfed its companions as it never had in summer; its wide-spreading branches were sharply cut against the blue background, and they tossed their frosted balls in the face of Heaven. The giant of Rainbow Bottom might be broken, but it never would bend. Every clambering vine, every weed and dried leaf wore a coat of lace-webbed frostwork. The wind swept a mist of tiny crystals through the air, and from the shelter of the deep woods across the river a Cardinal whistled gayly.

 

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