Willa Cather is just one wonderful story-teller. She’s a beautiful writer as well. From the opening scenes, one is transported to a place and time all too few of us are familiar with, and we discover our commonality and our alien-ness at the same time.
Interestingly, Cather tells the story of a Bohemian woman from a man’s point of view, yet somehow it seems natural to do so. Antonia starts out as a small child arriving with her family to the Nebraska grass lands where they begin farming in the meanest of circumstances, living not even in a sod house, but a virtual underground cave dug out of the ground, where the “bedroom” she sleeps in is nothing but a tunnel dug into the wall.
The portrait of Antonia is not the important point here, but rather the photograph that Cather paints of the time and the life of living on the prairie, before it has been broken into neat fences encompassing cornfields cut by roads. It is a time when town is “that way” across the rolling hills and only after many years is there a visible wagon-wheel trail to guide one.
We learn of course, as Cather probably didn’t realize, but we as her 21st century readers do, that nothing really changes. People remain much the same. Nativism was strong in the midwest during the late 1800’s, where town folks were concerned for their boy’s interest in the farm girls come to town to work.
Those girls, (foreigners) cooked and cleaned but didn’t attend school. They sent their money back to their parents on the farm, and soon paid off their mortgages and bought more land. These families became wealthy, but still the town folk preferred their boys marry town girls of proper lineage, even though the farm girls brought much greater wealth to a marriage.
What one learns of is the indomitable will to “do better” that the immigrants bring to America. Each girl moves on to learn a skill and better herself, and in doing so, she betters her entire family, building a proper home for their mothers, clothing their younger sisters and brothers, seeing to their education, all the while moving up the latter of success themselves.
Antonia loves the land, and marries and bears a dozen children. Her place is not the town, which she never adapted to well, but the land, and only here is she at peace. Jim, her best friend, and the story-teller moves on to Harvard and law, only returning some twenty years later. His meeting with Antonia, mother and wife, is extraordinarily rich. While he has moved far beyond the prairie, and has visited Europe and Antonia’s “hometown”, he still finds that his most basic roots, his truest self, grew in the tail red grass which is fast giving way to plowed fields.
What Cather seems to do so well here is merge the awful homesickness suffered by her characters with the peace they find in their lives. Much of this of course comes from the land itself, which confronts and consumes one and all. No vignette of life is complete without reference to the expanses that surround the people. Even discussions about town life are hemmed by the wild prairie existing on the edges of town. One, it seems, always has the ability to look far off to the sunset and recall days past.
Cather so well describes the sights and sounds, the smells of the Midwest that she achieves what every author aims for–her reader is transported to place and time and for a while shares a new life. It may be a life most of us would not wish to embrace permanently, but I imagine most of us wish to smell the hay in the loft, and feel the breeze through the red grass, while hearing the soft murmur of the creek at the bottom of the hill feeding into the pond. Warm sun, the smell of wild raspberries, and more than all, the smell of rich earth fill our nostrils and make us smile.
This is no small achievement for any author, and Cather succeeds magnificently.
A fast read, one that is too soon finished, but satisfying, full so.