Thursday, October 4, 2012

Writer of the Prairie

Red Cloud, Nebraska
"Black Hawk, the new world to which we had come to live, was a clean, well-planned little prairie town, with white fences and good green yards, about the dwellings, wide dusty streets, and shapely little trees growing along the wooden sidewalks.  In the centre of the town there were two rows of new brick 'store' buildings, a brick school-house, the court-house, and four white churches.  Our own house looked down over the town, and from our upstairs windows we could see the winding line of the river bluffs, two miles south of us."  Taken from "My Antonia" 
For Willa Cather fans like me, a visit to Red Cloud, Nebraska, is like a literary Disneyland.  Cather's fictional town of Black Hawk is a stand-in for Red Cloud, for Cather's novels often involve the use of her hometown and the people she knew there.
Red Cloud Opera House
Many of you may remember reading My Antonia in high school.  If you haven't read it, perhaps you should.  If you have, you might consider reading it again.  Just as I often tell Kansas children that they should read L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I believe those of us who love the prairie should read Willa Cather, and My Antonia is a good place to start.
If you live close enough, you may want to include a visit to Red Cloud as part of your Cather experience.  There you can see on the west side of the main street, which is Webster Street, the "new brick store buildings" described by Cather in the paragraph that opened this blog.  In the middle of the row is the Red Cloud Opera House, circa 1885, where Cather attended performances.  The Cather Foundation offices, gallery, bookstore, and auditorium now occupy this wonderful space, with exciting plans underway to expand the facilities.
Silas Garber's bank
During your visit you could go inside the Harling (Miner) House, circa 1878, to see the tiny room where the "hired girl" after whom Cather fashioned the character of Antonia slept.  You could drive out into the country to visit the Pavelka Farm where the "real Antonia" lived with her husband and where they raised the family of children described by the fictional Jim Burden when he visited Antonia as an adult.
You could also see the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank built by Silas Garber, which houses a museum with other memorabilia connected to Antonia.  Garber was the founder of Red Cloud and the 4th governor of Nebraska.  What is significant to Cather fans like me, however, is that Silas and his wife were the prototypes for Captain and Mrs. Forrester in another Cather novel, The Lost Lady.  When I visit Red Cloud, fiction always trumps reality!
Red Cloud Train Depot
My favorite of Cather's novels is O Pioneers! about a woman who takes over the family farm after her father's death.  Cather writes often about the immigrants who claimed homesteads on the Nebraska high prairie, and many of them arrived by train.  Alexandra Bergson is the Swedish heroine of O Pioneers! with whose love for the family farm I identify.  "She had never known before how much the country meant to her.  The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music.  She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun." Many Swedish immigrants, as well as those from other countries, arrived by train, and when she was a child, Cather enjoyed being at the depot.  During your visit to Red Cloud, you could see the original 2-story building that existed in Cather's day.
Willa Cather's childhood home
When young Jim Burden describes the view from the upstairs window in the above quote, Willa Cather was surely thinking of the view from her rented childhood home.  Visitors can now tour her old home, furnished as it would have been when Cather lived there.  The Cather Foundation has recently acquired the home Cather's parents bought in 1903, where Cather spent summers when she came to stay with her family.  It is now possible to stay in the home her parents bought when you visit Red Cloud.
There are many other Cather sights to see in Red Cloud and the surrounding countryside.  We visited the grave of her cousin, upon whom her Pulitzer-winning novel, One of Ours, is based.  Cather was the first woman to receive that award.
If tackling one of her novels seems a little intimidating, I highly recommend her short stories.  Among my favorites are "The Sculptor's Funeral," "Old Mrs. Harris," "A Wagner Matinee," and "Coming, Aphrodite!"  Cather's writing shares in common with another favorite of mine, Harper Lee, the richness of writing about people and places they knew.  What both women write will stay with you, because when you finish their books you feel like you have come to know their characters and have been present in the places described in their books.  Theirs are book to slow down and savor.
Consider going to the library to check out a Cather book, or going online where many of her novels and short stories can be downloaded.  If you find a favorite, or already have one, please leave a comment recommending your favorites to other visitors to this blog.  I hope that at least some of you will join Cather's many fans, including international readers, and soon you will be among those who love to debate which book or short story is her best!
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Wes Fisk said...

Willa Cather is also a favorite of mine. John Blake Bergers, from Lindsborg, KS, painted many scenes from her books, and many of his paintings are on display at the museum in Red Cloud. Some of his "Cather" paintings are in the hands of private collectors. We were able to buy "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" at an art auction about 10 years ago. Many of his paintings appears in works about Cather.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Did he have his paintings in Red Cloud in June? We enjoyed the watercolors in the opera house upstairs, but I can't recall the artist's name... I know that the artist sold several that weekend.

The Blog Fodder said...

I have not read any of her books but would like your recommendation as to a short story collection to start with. I like short stories.

Visiting towns that are central to an author is a special treat. The only one I seriously visited was hannibal MO.

Home grown authors are special. Saskatchewan has W.O. Mitchell (Jake and the Kid, Who has Seen the Wind).
The city, then town, of Weyburn features in Who has Seen the Wind

I have Lois Lenski's Prairie School which I last read in Grade 2 back in 1954. The kids found it for me on EBay.