As a young girl growing up in the 1860s on a Wabash County, Indiana, farm, Geneva Grace Stratton received a wondrous gift from her father, Mark, who had noticed his daughter’s love for nature and wildlife, especially the larks, cardinals, passenger pigeons, swallows, and hawks that flew overhead. He declared that all birds on the farm belonged to her, and she was to become their protector. “I was the friend and devoted champion of every bird that nested in the garden, on the fences, on the ground, in the bushes, in the dooryard, or in the orchard trees,” she noted years later.
From these early beginnings, Gene Stratton-Porter found a purpose for her life—sharing the outdoors with others through writing and photography and working to conserve nature for the generations to come. By the time she died at age sixty-one, Stratton-Porter was one of the country’s best-known authors, with a following of fifty million readers worldwide and with her novels and nature books selling hundreds of copies a day. Though never a favorite with literary critics, Stratton-Porter was beloved by ordinary Americans, as much for her storytelling skills and advocacy for wildlife as for her independent spirit. Often clad in manly clothes and toting a gun for protection as she trooped through swamps and forests, Stratton-Porter lived life on her own terms and, in the process, helped push back society’s boundaries for women.
Written by Barbara Olenyik Morrow, Nature’s Storyteller: The Life of Gene Stratton-Porter is the seventh volume in the Indiana Historical Society Press’s youth biography series. The book examines Stratton-Porter’s early life exploring the treacherous Limberlost Swamp in northeastern Indiana to her development as an enormously popular writer. Stratton-Porter used her popularity to campaign for conservation, and some claimed she was as influential as President Theodore Roosevelt in igniting public interest in wildlife causes. Prominent scholar and critic William Lyon Phelps observed that Stratton-Porter “led millions of boys and girls into the study of natural objects,” and he even called her “a public institution, like Yellowstone Park.”
Stratton-Porter continued to advocate for wildlife after her move to California, where she became one of Hollywood’s first female producers, turning her nature-themed novels into wholesome family movies. Upon her death from injuries in an automobile accident on December 6, 1924, she was widely mourned by fans of her many books, magazine columns, movies, and photography. She also was saluted by conservationists, grateful for her passionate pleas on behalf of the environment. In a tribute obituary, the Izaak Walton League, a national conservation organization, called on its members to “carry on in the cause for which she worked and in which she believed with every atom of her heart and soul.”
Morrow is a journalist and author who has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial writing. Her two children’s picture books, A Good Night for Freedom and Mr. Mosquito Put on His Tuxedo, have been praised by reviewers and garnered awards, including one from Friends of American Writers, an organization that honors emerging Midwestern authors. Morrow’s other books include From Ben-Hur to Sister Carrie, in which she profiles five Hoosier writers during Indiana’s golden age of literature. Her first book, Those Cars of Auburn, highlights the rich automotive heritage of Auburn, Indiana, where she lives.
Nature's Storyteller costs $17.95 and is available from the IHS's History Market.