Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Chasing Willa Cather

Last week I found myself, once again, standing in the grass looking at the old farmhouse where novelist Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Gore, Virgina, a bit west of Winchester.  I'd not intended to go there.  But while we were driving down to Staunton, Va., to see the American Shakespeare Center's production of The Two Noble Kinsmen (a play co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher), I saw the exits for Winchester, and then I remembered: This is where Willa Cather grew up. So, later, on the way home, we took a little detour--saw the place again.

I'm working on a review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer of a collection of letters written by Willa Cather (1873-1947).  Cather had never wanted her letters published--and it's taken this long to acquire the permissions, assemble and edit the volume.  I'll not say anything here about those letters--don't want to give away the story I'll tell in the review--but I do want to talk a bit about Willa Cather herself.

When I was in high school, we read Cather's disturbing story about a high school boy in Pittsburgh ("Paul's Case"--Link to story), and in college and grad school I read her two powerful Nebraska novels--O Pioneers! and My Ántonia.  But after my own school days (which ended in the late 1970s), I don't think I read any other Cather.  Until the summer of 2005 ...

I was teaching at Western Reserve Academy at the time, and my English-teacher colleagues and I had picked My Ántonia for our "summer reading" for the incoming junior class.  Well, those who know me well also know that I do not like to teach things I don't know much about, and so our Cather decision basically planned the rest of the summer for me.  I knew I would devote that summer to learning as much as I could about Cather--and to reading all of her books.

Complicating my plans: cancer.  Just before New Year's 2005, I'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer.  The biopsy indicated a low-grade cancer (it turned out not to be--but that's another story), so the surgeon was quite content to put off the surgery until after the school year ended.  So on Thursday, June 9, I underwent the procedure at Cleveland Clinic.

I recovered fairly quickly, considering, with lots of help from Joyce and others.  After a few weeks I was feeling strong enough to do something "on my own."  And so I did: I took a solo Cather journey.  On July 5, I drove to Pittsburgh, where I saw some sites related to the years Cather lived there--1896-1906 (though she was elsewhere for some of that time). She worked for a magazine there, met an intimate friend (Isabelle McClung--her house still stands), taught at a high school (the building still stands--though much modified).

Then I zipped down to Gore, Virginia, where I saw the dilapidated old farmhouse where Cather was born (see top of page) and, nearby, the home she lived in--"Willowshade"--until she was nine.  It was then that the family sold "Willowshade" and moved to Nebraska.  And no one would ever write more powerfully or evocatively of the Nebraska plains that Willa Cather.


PS--wonderful Cather site: Link

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