WILLA CATHER – A Strong Woman
One of my resolutions at the beginning of this year was that I would read fewer books. The plan was to take time to savor the language and pay attention to how the writer developed characters. I admitted in a post last August that that didn’t go well – or, more accurately, it didn’t go as planned. However, I did learn something about myself and isn’t that what resolutions are all about?
The second part of that resolution was to set aside a month to immerse myself in the words of one writer. How did that go? Much better. The writer I chose was Willa Cather. Why her? She was one of the many writers I know more by reputation than by actual experience. At that point, I had read only one of her books (My Antonia), but it was enough to know that she had interesting things to say and that I enjoyed her style. It was a good choice.
For me, reading is all about characters. The books that I love and go back to again and again are those with strong characters – people with whom I fall in love and cheer for, or sometimes hate and jeer at. Either way, these people real to me. After I close the book and turn off the light, I worry about them. When the book is finished and back on the shelf, I savor their triumphs and regret their disappointments. And when it comes to creating strong characters, nobody beats Cather – especially strong women.
My favorite examples of Cather’s strong women are portrayed in the books known as the Prairie Trilogy: Oh Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. If you want to understand the history of our country, read these three books. They tell the story of a country – growing, changing, and forging itself into a nation. The characters are not heroic in the usual sense of the word, but they, through the lives they led, the hardships they endured, the perseverance they displayed, are the backbone of the country. Their strengths and weakness are at the heart of who we, as Americans, are. In each of them, there’s a strong woman, a woman who’s not afraid to take charge of her own destiny.
Song of the Lark is a little different from the other two in that it looks at the less than admirable side of life in a tight, closed community. It’s the story of an artist, nurtured by the prairie she loves and, at the same time, constricted by the expectations of the community and stifled by small-town life. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Cather’s own experience went into this one.
To round out the month, I read a collection of novellas that included A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. They were all good stories, but I have to admit about half way through Death Comes for the Archbishop, I began to skim. It’s set in an earlier time than the others and was an inspiring story in many ways. The archbishop traveled all over the southwest, including some Native American sites that I’ve visited and found fascinating. I’m not sure why I lost interest. Maybe I was just maxed out on life on the great prairies – in other words, too much of a good thing.
All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in Willa Cather’s books. She was a wise woman, and a fine writer. A few of her observations that I thought worth jotting down:
“There are some things you learn best in calm and some in storm.”
“Where there is great love, there are always wishes.”
“It does not matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.”
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
No fancy language – just seemingly obvious statements, expressed in simple, declarative sentences. Yet I found them provocative. All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in the books of one author and will probably do it again. No idea who will be next. Any suggestions?