The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark cover

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather was first published in 1937 and it’s a chunky read at 581 pages. I’ve read quite a lot of books by Cather, I think this is the seventh and it’s the one that I’ve least enjoyed. It begins well with the setting of Moonstone, a small town in the American West where Thea Kronberg is one of a family of seven children, their father is a local Methodist minister and there’s some rivalry between them and the local Baptists. The blurb on the back says that it’s a Cinderella story – but who is the Cinderella character – certainly not Thea.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Thea has been singled out as the special daughter of the family. She’s pretty and blonde, everybody’s favourite. The local piano teacher thinks she has talent and she has to spend lots of time practising the piano, but eventually it’s her voice that she concentrates on and when she’s old enough she moves to Chicago to take lessons there.

Along the way Thea makes friends with various men. She’s one of those females who gets on much better with men than with other women. Everything leads to Thea’s eventual fame and fortune of course, but it’s at a cost to everyone else. She is completely focused on her career. She only went back to Moonstone once after leaving home, and didn’t even go there when she knew that her parents were dying. Her mother who had been so happy to put Thea up on a pedestal died thinking that having a family wasn’t really worth the bother. But Thea’s upbringing made it almost a certainty she was going to be a selfish diva.

There are a few mentions of the other daughter of the Kronberg family – Anna, the younger girl. She is the true Cinderella. Whilst Thea was getting all the attention poor Anna was the one doing all the housework that Thea was too special to do. Anna is portrayed as a bit of a fanatical Christian, but maybe she was hoping to get some attention and love from her father the minister. She was never going to be loved by her mother. Anna is seen as being embittered, but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances? She drops completely out of the book about half-way through. I want to know what happened to Anna who was so neglected by everyone.

Apart from that the book is just far too long, it really drags in the middle and could have been doing with being cut by about 200 pages. However as ever there are some lovely evocations of the countryside although Chicago is more of a shadowy place so you don’t get much of an idea of what it was like.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

This is the sixth book by Willa Cather which I’ve read and as usual I wasn’t disappointed in fact I really enjoyed it, the only trouble is it was all over too quickly for me, it is a very short book, a novella I suppose. Somewhow I’ve managed to read her books completely out of order, I should have started with this one.

It wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be, as that word ‘pioneer’ always makes me think of Little House on the Prairie and patchwork quilts, but this book isn’t exactly all sugar sweet and towards the end it did take an unexpected twist, as far as I was concerned anyway.

The story begins in Nebraska with Alexandra and her very youngest brother Emil visiting the nearest town to ask the doctor to visit their father who is ill. Alexandra knows that her father isn’t going to get better, her father has already accepted his situation and spends what little time he has left ‘stocktaking’ adding up how much he will be leaving for his family in the way of land and goods.

He makes Alexandra promise never to sell any of the land, the improvement of which has really curtailed his lifetime, he knows that given the chance, his two remaining older sons would sell up and go back to Chicago.

Alexandra takes over the business side of the farm, she learns all she can from other farmers in different districts and makes a great success of everything, but in the meantime her older brothers don’t see her as a separate human being at all, as far as they are concerned she is there just to be a cornerstone of the family but should have no ambitions for herself outside it.

So that’s a brief bit of Alexandra’s story but there are so many likeable characters, even the spoiled and petted Marie is adored by Alexandra, who always seems to see the best in people, but her innocence and friendliness have unexpected consequences.

I know, I’ve already said it, but I wanted this book to continue, because I was right there, in that red land where farming was just beginning to be mechanised but women still enjoyed making their own aprons and embroidering intricate cross stitch designs on them, as well as being businesswomen. For me Willa Cather strikes a perfect balance, description-wise, whether it’s the landscape, houses or people’s clothes and jewellery.

I downloaded this book from Project Gutenberg, I’m sure you’ve already read it but just in case you haven’t, you can get it here.

One of Ours by Willa Cather

I loved this book which was first published in 1922 and I downloaded it free from girlebooks. I’ve read quite a few books by Willa Cather and I’ve liked them all but I hadn’t even heard of this one so when I looked it up to see when it was published I was gobsmacked to see that she had won the Pulitzer prize for it.

It begins in Nebraska and I thought it was going to be one of her rural, pioneer type books which would’ve suited me fine but it goes on to be so much more.

Claude Wheeler is the middle son in the Wheeler family and his parents are quite well off, the farm is successful but Mr Wheeler is an awkward character and Claude doesn’t really fit in. He’s supposedly the brightest son and he’s dutiful and does as he’s told but in truth his father would like Claude more if he was more like his brothers who don’t toe the line and therefore are given more respect for having stronger characters.

Everything which Claude does is wrong and he even ends up marrying a dreadful, cold woman who is only interested in Christianity and prohibitionism. His parents can see history repeating itself as Claude’s father-in-law has had a miserable life with his wife.

Meanwhile the news from abroad is grim as the First World War is raging in Europe and the inhabitants of Nebraska are horrified at the newspaper reports from the old country. They are keen for their president to take them into the war but they have to wait quite a long time. When it does happen, Claude joins up immediately, wanting to escape his situation.

Eventually he gets to France as Lieutenant Wheeler and army life seems to suit him. For once he fits in.

As you can imagine, this is a sad tale, given the subject matter, but it’s something that I’ve always been interested in and I think this is the first novel about that war which I’ve read which has been written by an American. I’d be happy if anyone can recommend any others to me.

I love Cather’s descriptions so here’s a flavour from France.

When the survivors of Company B are old men and are telling of their good days they will say to each other, “Oh that week we spent at Beaufort!” They will close their eyes and see a little village on a low ridge, lost in the forest, overgrown with oak and chestnut and black walnut …. buried in autumn colour, the streets drifted in autumn leaves, great branches interlacing over the roofs of houses, wells of cool water that taste of moss and tree roots.

Some 2010 Book Thoughts

If my scribbled list is correct, I managed to read 81 books in 2010. Well, that might be me cheating a wee bit because I’ve still got about 100 pages of War and Peace to read, but the vast bulk of it has been read in 2010 and I’m giving myself loads of ‘Brownie points’ for getting around to reading it at last. Yes, I ended up being the Sixer of the Kelpies (Sprites) – if that means anything to anyone!

Authors whom I’ve enjoyed reading and were new to me this year are:
Willa Cather, Paul Auster, Annie Proulx, Barabara Kingsolver, Rosamunde Pilcher, Rosy Thornton, Zola – in fact there are too many to mention, so it’s been a really enjoyable reading year.

It’s all thanks to the recommendations of bloggers and commentators. I wouldn’t have got around to reading half of the new authors otherwise. I can hardly believe that I’ve actually read a book by Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus, definitely different but surprisingly fairly readable.

This year I’m trying to read a lot of the books which I’ve had in the house waiting to be read for years. Then I can either pass them on or pack them away when I’ve finished with them with a view to clearing some book clutter prior to downsizing. I am actually tripping over books!

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I’ve really enjoyed all of the books by Willa Cather which I’ve already read so I’m going to work my way through the rest of them.

I was quite disappointed that she wrote a book about the Roman Catholic church because as I was brought up in the west of Scotland I’ve found that avoiding religion is the best policy. Anyway, I ‘girded my loins’ and remembering that I had enjoyed Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, I took a big breath and plunged into it.

As ever it’s Cather’s descriptions that I love, she gives her novels a wonderful sense of place and makes it really easy for you to live there in your imagination, even if the landscape which is written about is an entirely alien one to you.

Looking at the story from a non Catholic viewpoint: This is about Roman Catholicism taking over from the original religion and traditions of the people of New Mexico. Two priests Father Vaillant and Bishop Latour are given the task of making the RC church more powerful. They are welcomed by the natives who are generous to a fault and the two priests sponge off them, taking everything that is offered to them – and more. The one mountain in the area which is a beautiful cream coloured rock is plundered and quarried to build a huge stone cathedral in a sparsely populated area. It’s Bishop Latour’s vanity project.

From the Roman Catholic point of view: This is the story of the church spreading its influence into New Mexico and helping the inhabitants have a better way of life through Catholic worship.

Having been brought up a Presbyterian and married to an Episcopalian (which Willa Cather converted to), I decided that atheism was the one for me and the only ‘religion’ that interests me is Celtic mythology because I like the importance that it places on nature and plants. But the Christians nicked all of the Celtic/Pagan festivals. The December holiday should be the celebration of the winter solstice, especially as Christ was apparently born sometime in September.

Anyway, back to the book, I didn’t like this one as much as My Antonia as the subject and the setting didn’t appeal to me as much. I was amazed to read that this book had been banned at various times, according to the Wikipedia article.

Willa Cather and others

I’m going to start reading Willa Cather’s Death of the Archbishop soon, so I was really chuffed when I paid a call on Christopher at ProSe last night and discovered that his new post was about his recent visit to Nebraska and Red Cloud, where Willa lived. His photographs are lovely and the houses are perfectly American, picket fence and all.

So if you’ve missed it, do yourself a favour and have a peek now. One of the houses featured is linked with the book My Antonia and is in need of some TLC apparently as is Robert Louis Stevenson’s home in Edinburgh, which you can see here. It really annoys me when literary history is just left to rot like this.

On the reading front, I’ve just finished Ian Rankin’s Let It Bleed. Does anybody else want to join in with the discussion on this book over at Judith’s ? (Reader in the Wilderness) I’m usually more of a vintage crime lass but I think I’m really going to get into the Rebus books.

I’m now nearly half way through Dracula and I’m really surprised at how much I’m enjoying it. Last night I decided to read War and Peace, I’ve been putting it off for years and the only way of doing it is to have a deadline, I think I have to finish it by January the 19th when there is going to be a discussion on it.

Last but not least, The Classics Circuit has started up again after a bit of a rest and the next tour is a Trollope one. I’ve signed up to read either The Belton Estate or The Claverings, which happen to be the only two of his which I have in the house but haven’t read yet.

I mustn’t forget Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers either.


Library Loot

I had a ‘phone call from the library yesterday to let me know that the Willa Cather book that I had requested was waiting for me, so I sauntered up there in the afternoon and of course I had to take out just a few books more. I ended up coming home with these:

An omnibus by Ian Rankin containing Let it Bleed, Black and Blue and The Hanging Garden. Judith, Reader in the Wilderness is planning to read Let it Bleed, and we’re intending to have a bit of a chat about it.

The Willa Cather book is Death Comes for the Archbishop – lots of people have recommended this one.

A Persephone book by Winifred Watson called Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. This will be my first Persephone read. According to the sticker on the book this is now a major film, but I haven’t seen it.

And because it’s coming up for Hallowe’en and lots of people have enjoyed it, particularly Stefanie, So Many Books and Jane GS, (Reading,Writing,Working,Playing), I decided to take out Dracula. I really hate the blood spattered cover but it’s about time that I got around to reading it and I’m hopeful that it’s going to be a lot better than The Seven Jewels by Stoker.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

This is the third Willa Cather book which I have read and this one didn’t disappoint me either. I’ve read Alexander’s Bridge and The Professor’s House.

The book begins with the 10 year old Jim Burden travelling to Nebraska by train. Both of his parents have died and he is going to live with his grandparents on their farm near Black Hawk. Ántonia and her family (The Shimerdas) are travelling in the immigrant car ahead and they are headed for Black Hawk too. They are described as Bohemian which meant they were Czech.

The area has already been settled by Norwegians and the book is really about the movement of people and how they cope, or don’t cope, with their changed circumstances. The characters are followed from childhood through to middle-age, and there are surprises along the way at the turns that their lives take.

The immigrants are homesick and pining for their homeland, even when it appears that they have settled down happily. In reality though they are pining for something which doesn’t exist anymore because people and places don’t stand still, just as they haven’t.

We hear tales from the old country and some of them are tragic stories which culminated in emigration. But there is plenty of humour there too, even if it is ‘black’ humour.

Willa Cather has a lovely way with words and describes the countryside beautifully, the trees and grasses and the taming of the land. As the new farmers become more adept over the years, the fields are changed from swathes of red grass to fields full of rippling crops.

I particularly enjoyed her description of Mrs. Cutter:
She was a terrifying-looking person; almost a giantess in height, raw-boned with iron-grey hair, a face always flushed, and prominent, hysterical eyes. When she meant to be entertaining and agreeable, she nodded her head incessantly and snapped her eyes at one. Her teeth were long and curved, like a horse’s; people said babies always cried if she smiled at them. Her face had a kind of fascination for me: it was the very colour and shape of anger.

I can’t help thinking that Mrs. Cutter was a real person, I wonder if she ever read the book and recognised herself.

Anyway, another very enjoyable Willa Cather book is crossed off the list. I had wanted to read O Pioneers first but as I’m still avoiding actually buying books until I’ve read the books which I have in the house waiting to be read, I had to get this one from the library. I might have to request O Pioneers.

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

This was the first book which Willa Cather had published and although I quite enjoyed it, I think I can safely say that she definitely improved with practice.

It’s the story of Bartley Alexander who is a famous bridge builder. He is married to Winifred who is a supportive wife and gives him respectability and a comfortable home life.

He is having what would nowadays be called a mid-life crisis, in other words he just wants to have his cake and eat it. When he meets up with Hilda,who is an Irish actress and an old flame of his, he can’t help being seduced by her and the more Bohemian life-style which she leads. She represents freedom, glamour and Europe.

The book has a very Calvinistic ending, in that you must pay for your sins in this world. It’s also obviously modelled on Edith Wharton’s writing.

I hope to read all of Willa Cather’s books eventually, it should be interesting to see how her style developed.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

It was fairly dire when I was at the library last week, there seemed to be nothing worth taking out. Possibly not all their fault as for some reason my mind tends to go blank. Why don’t I write a list? Well, quite often I do but then I forget to take the list with me – as you do.

Anyway, I spotted this Willa Cather book and as I had read somewhere on the blogosphere a couple of comments on her, I thought it was time to give her a go.

I’ve got a feeling that she might be the literature equivalent of marmite or marzipan in that you either love her or hate her, going by peoples’ comments.

It turns out that I love her!

The Professor’s House was written around about half-way through her writing career I think, so I’ll need to start at the beginning now and work my way through them.

It’s written in three parts with book 1 being called The Family and setting the scene. Book 2 is Tom Outlander’s Story and book 3 is called The Professor. In some ways it reminded me a bit of du Maurier’s Rebecca in that the house is such a big part of the book and an important character is already dead before the story begins.

There are similarities in the lives of Godfrey St Peter and the young Tom Outlander. St Peter had been a big part of the Thierault family when he had been a student in France, whilst for Outlander it had been the St Peters who had acted as a surrogate family.

If you haven’t read the book already and you intend to do so, maybe you should stop reading now.

The copy of this book which I read was a Virago. Don’t read the introduction until the end as they always tell the whole story. It was only after reading it that I realised the significance of some of the names though. A.S.Byatt wrote the introduction but she doesn’t mention anything about the rivalry between the two sons-in-law, one of whom is of Scottish ancestery whilst the other is Jewish. They despise one another and pass the feelings on to their wives causing difficulty in the family.

For me, this had a parallel in book 2 as it was thought that the extinct Mexican Indians had probably been wiped out by a rival tribe.

There were a few things within the book which, for me, had the distinct whiff of Scottish Presbyterianism and so I had to find out a bit about Willa Cather. I felt the same about Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain and sure enough they had Scottish fathers and step-fathers.

Although most of the biographies of her only spoke about Virginia and Nebraska, I eventually found something which mentioned that the family had originated in Ireland in the 1750s. As there was so much to-ing and fro-ing between Scotland and Ireland at that time, it all amounts to the same place really. It’s the Celtic connection.

Willa’s mother’s maiden name of Boak is actually the Scottish word for vomiting. How unfortunate!