I confess — I never liked Nebraska. When I moved from Chicago to Denver I drove several times on Interstate 80 which cuts through the flat state like a silver knife. Nebraska’s endless miles of emptiness, the monotony broken up now and then with cows, a lonely-looking farm house, rows of corn, made this city girl feel sorry for anyone who had to live in such a dull place. And then I met my husband in Colorado, and the joke was on me as he was from Nebraska.
After we moved to Arizona, we would often return to his birthplace to visit his large extended family. Everything felt too quiet for me. The scattering of small towns where his family lived felt stifling, and the ranch where my husband was raised in the middle of nowhere felt isolating.
During one of our visits, on yet another long drive on the Nebraska prairie, we saw a sign for a Willa Cather historical marker ahead. We considered stopping, but we had many miles yet to drive before reaching our destination. I’d heard of Cather, read My Antonia, thought it a fine book, but the novel hadn’t sunk into my heart. I gazed out the window as we zipped by the marker and saw only tall grasses waving in the wind on flat land. I wondered how Cather found anything to write about. There was only the occasional shrill of meadowlarks perched on telephone wires to pierce the ever-present wind which seemed to have blown all the people and trees to another, more desirable, state. After many years of marriage, and many trips to Nebraska, I decided I had seen enough of the state to last a life time. I saw no need to make the trip again.
And then I re-read My Antonia and now I’m thinking twice about my disdain for Nebraska. Perhaps it’s simply Cather’s rich characterization of the immigrants who settled the great plains, or maybe how Cather paints a both stunning and beautiful portrait of the prairie with her words.
When Cather wrote, “the country was empty and solitary except for the larks that Sunday morning, and it seemed to lift itself up to me and to come very close,” I regret not stopping and visiting Red Cloud, Nebraska where Cather once lived and which was the setting for My Antonia.
In the opening of the novel, Jim, the young narrator of My Antonia, is orphaned and moves from the east coast to Nebraska to live with his grandparents on a farm. “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed to be running,” said Jim about his new home.
It must have been difficult for Cather to move from the green cool of her Virginia home with her family to the frigid winters and hot summers of Nebraska when she was nine years old in the late 1800s. At the age of eleven, Cather delivered mail to the rural, and mostly immigrant, families who worked hard to carve a new life out of a land so different from where they came. She wrote with an open heart about hunger, poverty, and illness, as well as the joys and loves of people striving to make a home.
Cather proves me wrong with my assumption that nothing happens in small towns. In her fictionalized version of Red Cloud, which she named Black Hawk, there is a ruthless man who murders his wife, a smarmy train conductor who betrays Antonia, and a young woman who becomes a wealthy seamstress. Yes, she does talk about the dulling affect a small town can have on a young man like Jim who wants to see the world, and yet, even after he becomes educated, married, and lives in New York City, he still wants to return home to Nebraska and his friend Antonia who reminds him of his youthful innocence.
Jim described Antonia, “she had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree, and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last.”
It’s as if Antonia sprung right from the great plains and into Jim’s life. Speaking about the big blue bowl of a Nebraska sky and his friend, Jim recalled, “how many an afternoon Antonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence!” On her mail route Cather likely met girls like Antonia, a young Bohemian girl who lives with her immigrant family in a sod house and becomes Jim’s lifelong friend.
I cried at the end of My Antonia and was surprised by my tears. I think now that most of all my tears were for Antonia who always wanted to see the best in people. She never hardened against the trials of life on the prairie and kept her heart open.
After I finished the book, I had my own memory of Nebraska, one untainted by prior negative judgments. We were at my husband’s grandmother’s farm home. She had died and we had come for her funeral. While everyone was in the farm house talking after dinner, their voices harmonizing in the song of family, I stepped outside and into the stillness. The corn tassels were like candles lit by the setting sun. The air smelled like air should smell in the country, new and clean, and I remember that same sense of the land coming close to me, just as Cather once wrote. I recall that now, that sense of peace and beauty, and think maybe I will visit Nebraska again, after all.
Those interested in visiting Cather’s Nebraska home can go to WillaCather.org