Five Stories by Willa Cather
The Best Years by Willa Cather
This is the last short story that Cather ever wrote. It is a sweet, sad story about a young prairie teacher, her family, and the school superintendent who is responsible for her school. Miss Knightly is the superintendent and Lesley Ferguesson is the young teacher. Miss Knightly comes by to sit in on Lesley’s class – her second – and hear how things are going. Lesley was (knowingly) hired when she was technically underage. Her first year teaching (with some students older than her) was challenging, but this year is going so much better and her children are wonderful.
Miss Knightly is living close to Lesley’s family, who are far from the school, so Lesley hasn’t seen them in awhile. She offers to give Lesley a ride home to see her parents and many brothers. Lesley is thrilled, so they set out, and we hear about her wonderful weekend with her family, whom she misses very much. It is not a wealthy family, but it is a very loving and happy family (like Rosicky’s in the prior story in the book). I’ll stop there, but say the story ends with Miss Knightly, now married, coming back to visit and seeing how things have changed since she left many years past (for one thing, cars have replaced horses).
I think that this story is one which would be particularly meaningful to Cather who left her family in the Midwest when she was a young woman going away to college and never returned. Her biographies describe her as not particularly close to her family and in other reviews of her work I have talked about my sense that the family in Song of the Lark may be more similar to her own family than the Ferguessons or the Rosickys in these stories. So, I think these stories represent her fantasy of other people’s families and what could have been, but wasn’t, in her family.
Paul’s Case by Willa Cather
This last story in the book (it does include a chapter about a fragment of a story she wrote – an article about it that I chose not to read, it didn’t seem very interesting) stays with the themes of the earlier ones and, as so much of Cather’s work does, uses issues in her own life. Paul is an unhappy teenage student whose teachers are tearing their hair out with him. He is utterly disinterested in school and isn’t quiet about it. He talks back and generally acts above the whole experience of being in school. He dresses like a dandy and wears his attitude on his sleeve. Only the principal realizes that he is very unhappy and troubled.
Then we see Paul in his position as an usher at an symphony concert. He is a completely different person, excited, at home, thrilled to be part of something, gracious, and at ease. Until one of his teachers arrives, to his great unhappiness. But no matter, he enjoys the concert and then goes home. But his family is so mundane, tasteless, and angry that he can’t bear it and he sneaks in to sleep in the cellar. Ultimately, he gets in so much trouble at school that his father no longer allows him to work as an usher and he must go to work at a business, which he hates. Until, one day, he finds his chance to live the life to which he feels he was born. I’ll end there to save the plot.
Cather felt ill at ease with her own family and many of the people she grew up with (the same people she idealized in her later books) and left as soon as she could, ultimately going to Chicago, New York and other eastern cities to live and work in the literary scene. She loved opera with a passion and had a strong artist’s sensibility. It is believed that she was probably gay, she had many intense, long-term relationships with women, but was not openly gay in a time when this would have hurt her work and was pretty rare. So, she shares a lot with Paul in not being able to feel comfortable with the people and place from whence she came.
I can definitely relate, having grown up in a tiny village that I could not wait to leave. As many of you are, I was a hard-core reader, desperately looking for some intellectual content in my home town. Of course, it was pretty limited, although since then, it has become popular as an artist’s village. However, our tiny K12 school did have some very talented high school teachers who gave me and a number of my classmates who are now professors a great deal. I felt disdain for my community when I was a teenager (what teenager doesn’t?) but when my family moved in the middle of my senior year and it was very hard for me to go back to see my friends, I missed it deeply. And even now, I miss and idealize that beautiful little town and envy people who get to stay in one place (although none of my career could have happened had I done so – I’ve moved all over the country for my degrees and work, until settling down for my career in a community where I’ve lived for 17 years).
So, I think Cather has this in common with many of us, in many ways. Most people find it hard to fit in at some point in their lives. Most people find it hard to find their “clan” at some point. And don’t we all too frequently appreciate what we have a lot more when we lose it? A wise friend once said one of the keys to life is enjoying what you have while you have it, they were very right – not only do you get the appreciation of what you have, but I’ve also found it much easier to let things go if I’ve really savored them while they were with me (for instance, my beloved pets who have died). I hope Cather learned this at some point in her life, because I’m not sure her character Paul did.
New Acquisitions: Until thy Wrath is Past
While reading I Love My Kindle by Bufo Calvin (great blog is you have a kindle reader or if you use the kindle software on you computer or phone), I learned that you can turn on “special offers” on a regular kindle 3 and that Amazon was offering 100 kindle books for $1 as a special offer (you could only choose one of them). I’m pretty anti-ads, but I turned the special offers thing on and I don’t find the ads too intrusive (I can turn it off at any time) and I also got a free audio book (which I’m not going to count 🙂 through the special offers. So, I chose Asa Larsson’s mystery Until Thy Wrath is Past as my $1 book – it had been on my wish list. It is (yikes!) #16 (out of 20).
Happy Reading! Ruby