Willa Cather Reading Week: A Lost Lady

A Lost Lady

I was so happy to read Willa Cather this week – to be back in the West, in the beautiful landscape of Nebraska, in the small railroad towns and among the pioneers who are rough yet cultured in their own way. I always feel that reading Cather is the closest I get to reading about my own heritage in a novel (other than reading Westerns, I suppose) as my mom’s family were all pioneers, settling in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and, eventually, Arizona. Cather’s settings and characters are so familiar to me.

A Lost Lady is set in Sweet Water, a small town in Nebraska that is on the rail line between Omaha and Denver. Mrs. Forrester is a beautiful, mysterious, refined woman who lives with her wealthy husband in a big, lovely house on the outskirts of town. She’s vibrant and flirtatious – what is often called a man’s woman. Young Niel Herbert falls under her spell rather early in his life and as he grows up we see Mrs. Forrester from his perspective – from near perfection to the clear-eyed disappointment we sometimes develop in the cherished adults of our youth. But always he protects her, helps her, forgives her, until she finally puts her faith in the wrong person and his respect for her cracks.

This is a fascinating portrait of a woman who, like the West, is in transition. Though Niel longs for her to remain steady in her charms and perfection, Mrs. Forrester needs to change as the world changes. It is upsetting to all of the men around her and ultimately leads her to break with the people who want to maintain tradition and stability. It is a convincing character study and a classic portrait of frontier life on the verge of vanishing.

A short novel at just 150 pages, but a powerful one. Willa Cather’s writing is sensational, especially as it is not showy, but subtle and quiet.

Thank you to Ali for hosting this week. I’m now motivated to read the rest of Cather’s novels.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather


The Song of the Lark is my second Cather this year and has all the elements that I love about Cather novels. The Western landscape is of major importance in the novel and nature as a healer and balm for the human soul is here also. There is also a focus on immigrants and how they meld their own customs into American life. Another major theme of The Song of the Lark is the question of what it means to be an artist and the things you have to give up to fulfill your creative talents. These are all fundamental pieces of Cather’s novels that I usually appreciate reading about.

The novel’s main character is Thea Kronborg, a talented singer from a Scandinavian immigrant family. She grows up in Moonstone, Colorado during the late 19th/early 20th centuries and, like many of Cather’s characters, has a special connection with the land. She loves the sand dunes outside of town and enjoys socializing with the outsiders in her community, like the railroad men and the citizens of Mexican town. Thea is ‘different’ and is a favored child of many adults in town who continue to revere her into her adulthood.  In her late teens she gets the opportunity to go to Chicago to study music and at this point Cather lost me. Thea is such an unpleasant young woman and I didn’t like being in her company. I had to force myself to continue reading. In Moonstone, the landscape and quirky characters made up for Thea’s selfish behavior. While in Chicago, Thea becomes the focus of the novel and her negativity started to annoy me.

The rest of the novel shows Thea’s struggle to become a great singer and to define herself as an artist. A brief chapter set in Arizona among Native American cliff dwellings returned me to the aspects of Cather’s writing I most love while also furthering Thea’s idea of what creativity really is.

While I enjoyed many things about The Song of the Lark, an unlikable main character kept me from thoroughly admiring it as I have the other two Cather novels I’ve read. I feel that Cather, through Thea, battles to understand creativity and in the process makes artists seem like selfish, narcissistic cold-hearted people. Do I really think that you must cast off all family relations in order to be an artist? Or to treat everyone around you with contempt and unkindness? Or to be a manipulative, nasty user? No, I personally don’t, but Thea does these things and I think Cather wants to convey that you do have to sacrifice (even your humanity?) to achieve artistic perfection.

This will not be one of my favorite Cather books, but her landscape descriptions and portrayal of small-town Western life in the late 1800’s are reasons worth reading it. Have you read The Song of the Lark? Do you like Thea?


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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

There is a magical quality to Willa Cather’s writing that greatly affects me. I have long been an admirer of My Antonia and can’t read more than 2 sentences of that entrancing novel without getting teary. It’s not so much the subject matter that moves me (though it does) but the words themselves, the images they create, the feelings of sympathy they evoke.

I found the same quality in Death Comes for the Archbishop. I am not shy to state that this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I felt transported while reading it, lifted above the everyday dinginess of my own life to  a land that is brutal and fierce but where nature rules and is beautifully infused into the lives of the people. I very much admire the way Cather writes about nature. Her respectful and praising attitude toward the landscape of New Mexico or Nebraska or whatever place she is writing about becomes almost central to the story – a character itself.

Ms. Willa Cather

This novel takes place in New Mexico, the land of enchantment. Father Latour, a French priest who has been serving in Ohio, is sent to be the bishop of the Santa Fe mission. The year is 1851 and the journey out to the west is treacherous. After much hardship he arrives among the juniper trees and red hills of his new diocese. The people of Santa Fe will at first not acknowledge his authority, but he finally wins them over and becomes a beloved figure in the town. He soon sends for his best friend and fellow priest, Father Vaillant, to join him. The two men have been inseparable since they were in seminary together and Father Latour relies on his much more energetic and charming friend to grease the wheels of progress among the natives and Mexican citizens of the area. Father Latour is more of a dreamer, a reserved and cultured man who loves the people he serves, but doesn’t like conflict.

The book doesn’t really have a straight narrative. It is comprised of sketches in the life of these two noble men that progress through the years of their service in the area. We meet many of the members of their diocese, many of them simple people who love God and are devoted to goodness. We also meet scoundrels and wealthy villains who make life difficult for the church.

St. Francis Cathedral Basilica of Santa Fe

While this is not a fast-moving novel or what some would call gripping, I was hooked from the first page.  I think it may have more meaning to me because I am from the southwest and enjoyed reading about what life was like here during the 19th century and I love the descriptions of the trees and plants and rocks that are so familiar to me.

Magic and magnificence emanate from this tale. I could enthuse non-stop about how much I loved it, but instead I will urge you to discover the beauty for yourself.